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Leitmotifs rather than scenes rule in a new novel of Israeli life by the author of The Smile of the Lamb (1991), etc. Aron Kleinfeld, 12, lives with his mother, father, and older sister in Jerusalem in the months leading toward the Six-Day War. He's waiting for pubic hair, for the mysteries of girls to become clear, for the key to friendship with one particular boy, Gideon, to turn more manageably. He worries about just about everything, alternately shocked by adult amorality (how could his parents warehouse his old grandmother, who'd been living with them, just because she was less than tightly screwed-in upstairs?) while at the same time seeking its advantage. He finds his father's pornographic postcards in a closet and becomes the audience for a real drama of attraction when an unmarried female neighbor asks Axon's father to do some demolition work in her apartment for pay. Aron's canny, fierce mother will not allow the work to occur unchaperoned, and thus Axon spends afternoons dreaming to the sound of his father's sledgehammering and the neighbor's delighted squeals of horror. Like a number of other Israeli novelists, Grossman is, stylistically, Faulkner-haunted (""He followed him up to the school gate, unsure whether to go over and show his face and talk to him as if nothing had happened, so what had, and if God forbid it had, Axon wasn't the one who ought to feel guilty, and there would no longer be any need to ask or hope, but he didn't go over and show his face, he slinked behind from tree to tree...""), but here the adolescent magma mixes with the run-on sentences to produce mostly sludge. Stagy symbolism -- the sledgehammering, a section in which Axon's father fashions a girl out of challah dough for his embarrassed son -- slows rather than quickens the book. Earnest, but largely a portentous, formless slog.

Pub Date: Aug. 1st, 1994
Page count: 480pp
Publisher: "Farrar, Straus & Giroux"