In Halaban’s (The Perfect Wish, 2013) latest novel, an emotionally traumatized, middle-aged man gets the chance to confront his past and transform its meaning.
In 1977, Maury Green is a 50-year-old real estate salesman living in New Haven, Connecticut. For almost 30 years, he’s seemed old and defeated—ever since he returned home after a short stint in the Israeli army, following his service in World War II, during which he moved bodies in Dachau. Even more soul-killing was his treatment by Israeli soldiers from a rival political faction, who subjected him to a mock execution by firing squad, leaving him humiliated and broken-spirited. At his job, Maury used to be a top salesman, but lately he’s had a long string of lean months; the only respect he ever seems to get is when he writes checks for Jewish fund-raising efforts. At one such event, he recognizes Israeli Gen. Yaacov B. Ronen, the possible future prime minister of Israel and the cruel leader of his long-ago humiliation—but Ronen doesn’t recognize him. When Maury is asked to be a go-between for the general, who has some priceless, ancient scrolls to sell, he conceives a daring plan of revenge and redemption. Halaban makes palpable the little routines and rhythms of Maury’s life, which later become helpful in working out his plans. He effectively establishes Maury as both a nebbish and a mensch; for example, Maury resents his more successful co-workers but also buys a daily breakfast for a homeless woman he calls Queen Esther. As the book goes on, Maury’s deep sensitivity becomes more apparent. The scrolls, for example, become a litmus test. The general cynically exploits them: “ ‘Remember the camps, Maury. Remember the camps,’ he whispered….Maury wasn’t buying.” Later, Maury gains courage and hope from two academics’ passionate, awed response to them: “We have to save the scrolls, Maury. We have to save them,” says one. Throughout, Halaban makes Maury’s transformation believable and highly engaging.
A clever, humane and deeply satisfying novel.