Two generations of men tussle with love, medicine and fatherhood in this rambling follow-up to Ratner’s 2009 debut, The Jump Artist.
The heroes of this story are Isidore Auberon, who transcends his abusive Jewish-immigrant home in Cleveland to become a respected doctor, and his son Leo, who’s frustrated by his inability to live up to his late father’s legacy. Ratner frames the story, particularly Isidore’s part of it, as a kind of modern-day medieval myth: Chapters about him have lengthy, faux-Arthurian titles (“Of Isidore’s Quest for a Damosel for to Make a Home…."). Little in his story, though, seems worthy of such finery—Isidore joins the Merchant Marine, becomes a doctor, marries and settles down, events that don’t quite merit Ratner’s efforts to inflate them. And if the point is that Leo overestimates his father’s importance, his own share of the narrative is similarly pedestrian. There are flashes of humor in Leo’s adolescent anxieties about girls and getting into an Ivy League school, and the closing section in which he hits the road with his brother gets some energy from the eccentric characters they meet. But this novel is persistently, frustratingly unsteady on its feet from start to finish. Ratner (himself a doctor) fails to settle on a consistent tone, shuttling from pungent sentences to dialogue full of pop-culture riffs to melodrama to punning irony—the mood is seriocomic, but the line between what’s serious and what’s comic feels uncertain and uncontrolled. Max has the essential elements of a great Salinger-esque hero—bright, precocious, haunted by family—but we don’t get to truly know him until a third of the way through the book, and his frustrations with dad never gain clear focus.
This could be a family epic crudely whittled down or a sketch of one. Either way, this book doesn't match its ambition.