THE OLD RELIGION by David Mamet

THE OLD RELIGION

KIRKUS REVIEW

 Macho minimalism serves a moral cause poorly. Playwright, novelist (The Village, 1994), essayist (Make Believe Town, 1996), and filmmaker Mamet is known for his hard- driving, unsentimental portraits of rakish and raffish men contending with life's rough-and-tumble. But this historical fiction about a bona fide American Jewish martyr, circa 1915, is something else again. Part failed Hemingwayesque melodrama, and part Platonic meditative monologue, the book seems oddly set against its own success. Very brief chapters peppered with monosyllabic dialogue scissor the plot into dull-edged fragments, even though a unifying story lurks somewhere in there: the tale of Atlanta, Georgia, factory owner Leo Frank's false accusation, arrest, trial and conviction, and his lynching, for allegedly raping and murdering Mary Phagan, one of his female employees. That's the melodrama; because his religion is considered outrÇ in the South, Frank--originally a New York Jew--must inevitably be a victim, Mamet suggests. The novel's perversity lies partially in the jarring stylistic gaps between Mamet's street-wise dialogue and his eviscerated philosophizing, conducted in Leo's turgid, unpersuasively abstract, thoughts. On the one hand, readers eavesdrop on realistically anonymous yet unmoored snippets of conversation. Typically tight-lipped secondary deadbeat characters will mutter, when feeling loquacious, such things as ``There in the heat, eh?'' and ``uh huh.'' At the other extreme, we hear this from Frank himself: `` `How much do we unwittingly intuit,' he thought, `in extenuation of that which we lack the honesty to call ``random''?' '' An incongruously slow and disjointed start leads to somewhat better things as the story fitfully unfolds, but the author's literary mannerisms continually befuddle the action and limit our access to Frank, a forlorn and fatalistic figure whose jailhouse dedication to learning Hebrew and reading all 47 novels by Trollope seems implausible as rendered here. The close is swift, true, and brutal, like the best of Mamet--but the rest isn't. A writer staggers and mumbles.

Pub Date: Oct. 1st, 1997
ISBN: 0-684-84119-3
Page count: 208pp
Publisher: Free Press
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1st, 1997




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