In Wormser’s (Impenitent Notes, 2011, etc.) novel, a Jewish mother and her son grapple with personal and political change in civil rights–era Baltimore.
As the story opens in the summer of 1962, Arthur and Susan Mermelstein appear to be flourishing. Arthur, a bright, diligent high school student, works as a driver for a friend of his father’s; his mother, Susan, spends time with her husband and son and prepares to return to her job teaching high school English. Arthur would like to have a girlfriend, and Susan would like to move to a larger house, but generally, it would seem that “all’s well in the Mermelstein household.” Inwardly, however, Arthur and Susan are in turmoil. Arthur increasingly questions how African-Americans are treated by whites in Baltimore—an issue thrown into high relief by his job driving a landlord to collect rents from black tenants. Meanwhile, Susan, feeling neglected by her husband and generally unfulfilled, tries to reduce her “tension” with pills. As President John F. Kennedy confronts troubles both at home and abroad, Arthur and Susan each face their own difficulties, including challenges of the heart. Wormser, a poet, has a miraculous ability to evoke a sense of time and place, and he adeptly conjures a Baltimore “emphatically below the Mason-Dixon Line” with gorgeous prose and thorough scholarship. He also draws vivid, true-to-life characters—particularly his principals, whose habits, tastes in music and evolving political views feel completely organic. He switches the narrative’s focus between Arthur and Susan with each chapter, allowing readers to see them through each other’s eyes and adding depth to their characterizations. That said, the relatively short chapters go so quickly that some of the characters’ epiphanies feel abrupt. For example, when Susan meets African-American music teacher Jarvis Baker at a colleague’s Sunday gathering, she finds him “radiant”—and within moments she wants “to bury her face in Jarvis Baker’s chest,” despite the fact that he’s only been present in the story for a few pages. Even readers who believe in love at first sight may find such a sudden swoon unrealistic.
An evocative and engrossing, if occasionally rushed, historical novel.