Kaufman’s (Outlaw Bible of American Poetry, 1999) grim memoir of a life defined by feelings of victimhood, traced chiefly to his mother—a survivor of the Nazi occupation of France.
Kaufman’s tone is made clear at the outset, when he immediately plunges into his early recollections of being beaten mercilessly with a wire coat hanger by his mother. His father offers no quarter; an abrasive, emotionally distant man, he doesn’t do much besides watch TV and avoid interaction with his family. Much space is devoted to the daily dangers of living in an edgy Bronx neighborhood and the various miseries of poverty. We do get to see the author grow from a soft, fat victim into a more self-assured, football-playing bruiser, but aside from the relief at seeing his beatings end, there is little pleasure in watching; he never achieves any kind of perspective on his wretchedness. The high points of his story come when he’s able to turn his pen to subjects other than anti-Semitism or his relations with his parents. An account of his first trip to the Hudson River (in which the young Kaufman is able, finally, to get a breath of fresh air) is one of a handful of magical moments scattered throughout. His bar mitzvah, conversely, was another opportunity for his parents to disappoint him (culminating in their discarding the 20 invitations they told him they’d send out)—but it provides him with yet another occasion to draw a scathing portrait of his thuggish extended family. The final few chapters are dedicated to a series of truncated essays about adult adventures—living on a kibbutz, recovering from alcoholism in San Francisco, and visiting Dachau. The memoir as a whole might have been given more balance had the author had dedicated more pages to these exploits—and fewer to his high-school football.
An intriguing project—the tracing of the long shadow cast by the Holocaust on a Jewish Everyboy—but very unevenly executed.