The author of several nonfiction books on gems and jewelry draws on his expertise for an ambitious first novel of challenging design.
Zucker takes his form from the Talmud—a central text surrounded by commentaries, with each page accompanied by a photo or artwork on the opposite side—but the format looks denser than it is. In essence, the author simply embellishes a mundane core story with lots of modernist gestures, a hodgepodge of quotation and imagination that draws on everyone from Kafka to Derrida. His gallery of images is mostly a hall-of-culture heroes: Bob Dylan, Jackson Pollock, van Gogh, Vermeer, assorted rabbis and yeshiva students. At the heart of this collage is the tale of New York City diamond merchant Abraham Tal, who serves as a counselor to his Hudson Street neighbors, doling out advice for two dollars a session. Dismissed by his jewelry-dealing older bother as a pathetic loner, Abraham blames this same brother for all his worldly troubles. A long-ago thwarted marriage in Antwerp obsesses Abraham to the end, which eventually comes in an Israeli synagogue attended by his faithful nephew Isaac. Before that, though, Abraham smartly advises Dosha, a local painter, on how to win in marriage her Yalie boyfriend, Fisher, an aspiring author hoping to write The Great American Novel. The final scene finds Isaac’s son, years later, in the Israeli desert, fulfilling the dream of his great-uncle in a moment of transcendent blueness. Zucker’s “guide to the reader” invokes Joyce and Fitzgerald, but these references are unmerited conceits; his commentators are mostly idle kibitzers who rarely add anything essential to the simple text, and his quotations are often quite commonplace.
The various materials assembled here might add up to a novel, but not without greater authorial inventiveness.