MY AMERICA! by Eliot Wagner


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Wagner is a past master (Grand Concourse, Better Occasions) of the slangy, ironic, Yiddish-rhythmed speech/thought patterns of Jewish first-and-second-generation New Yorkers. And here he ladles out that borscht-of-consciousness prose with energetic, relentless, exhausting bravura--in a rich, dense, but vastly overextended and ultimately somewhat disappointing tale of a Lower East Side family (that seems to specialize in adultery) from World War I to 1950. Handsome Hymie Share is an incorrigible philanderer, lazy too (he's given up his factory job to peddle ties)--and he carries on, while suffering wife Golda looks away, with one young neighborhood girl after another: sweet butcher's-wife Dora (who dies pregnant with his child); lunatically jealous Miss Debbie Horowitz (""a plague from God for his sins""); even Madame Nadler the has-been (""the kosher Madama Butterfly""). But when one young beauty loudly resists irresistible Hymie's advances in the kitchen--virtuous, redheaded refugee-cousin Reisel, who has just arrived from the rape-pogroms, along with her wildly paranoid mother--Hymie is finally thrown out of the house. And son Danny, though just as gorgeous as papa, comes to loathe the ""playboy stuff"" that has shamed his family. His semi-respectful passion, in fact, turns to cousin Reisel: a culture-seeking, self-denying, self-improving, holier-than-thou marvel who soon joins the hand-painted lamp business run by Danny's sisters, bitchy Leah and meek, tragically childless Naomi. But Reisel is above the flesh, and Danny--now salesman at the lamp business--winds up married to wisecracking Carrie (""kiss me kid, nothing makes me sick""), who resolves to modernize the business, get rid of cultured Reisel, make a stock-market fortune, and amass real estate. So far, so good--with a marvelous specificity in the nasty family-business hassles (including the inevitable no-good brother-in-law) and a superb character in eerily competent Reisel (""Blame on genius,"" she says). But the rest of this very long novel, alas, is largely devoted to dullish Danny's hopeless affair with another cultured lady (a married violinist) and to a rudimentary stab at family-saga sweep--as Danny loses one son in World War II and sees the other become a glossy success. And not even a nice last chapter--return appearance by Hymie in 1950, Danny and Reisel walking off arm in arm--can recapture the controlled zest of the book's first half. Shorter would have been a whole lot better, then, especially since Wagner's high-pitched, wordplaying, often-hilarious style leaves no breathing space and becomes awfully wearing at such length. But impressive it is--for the avoidance of most saga clichÉs, for the kvetchy exactitude of the lower-Manhattan milieus, for the restless insistence on cramming every moment with as much earthy/lyrical vividness as possible.

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 1980
Publisher: Kenan/Simon & Schuster