Mansbach (Angry Black White Boy, 2004, etc.) searchingly examines the fraught relations between Jews and gentiles, blacks and whites, men and women, artists and those who nurture them.
The bravura opening set piece catches Tristan Brodsky racing through his East Bronx neighborhood in 1935. “Fifteen years old, the sum total of five thousand years of Jewry, one week into City College, a mind on him like a diamond cutter,” Tristan is an aspiring writer desperate to break free from his immigrant parents’ narrow expectations. A half-century later in Prague, teenage photographer Nina Hricek similarly burns to escape stifling communist Czechoslovakia, maybe even find the father who fled for the States five years earlier and hasn’t been heard from since. The third chapter introduces Tristan’s grandson, Tris Freedman, or RISK, as he prefers to be known in 1989, when the suburban teen spray-paints his tag on freight trains in between gigs playing hip-hop music at Connecticut bar mitzvahs. In one of the novel’s many smart, socially revealing scenes, RISK takes Grandpa—a famous novelist who’s having a bad bout of writer’s block—out to the yards with some cans of Red Devil. Rejuvenated by his contact with a new kind of culture, Tristan begins a novel that, when it’s published in 1997, completely overshadows his embittered grandson’s fiction debut. A raft of full-bodied characters helps Mansbach maintain equal interest in the separate plot lines until Nina eventually meets Tris, but the central, tragic story concerns the slow disintegration of Tristan’s marriage to Amalia, a gifted poet whose initial connection with Tristan as a fellow writer is so electric that it takes her 50 years to finally rebel against his cold, punishing ways and dedication to his work at the expense of his family. The moving, chilling final scenes suggest that Tris is the same sort of unapologetically egotistical artist.
Painfully honest, compassionately cognizant of human frailty and complexity, alive to the magic of creativity yet aware of its consequences—very exciting fiction indeed.