The Poison Tree by Henry I. Schvey

The Poison Tree

A Memoir
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KIRKUS REVIEW

A professor describes growing up with his dysfunctional family in New York.

In this memoir, Schvey (Drama and Comparative Literature/Washington Univ.; Oskar Kokoschka, the Painter as Playwright, 1982, etc.) describes his troubled childhood. Born to parents from wealthy Jewish families, Schvey grew up with a physically and emotionally abusive father and a neurotic mother. A big shot at Merrill Lynch, Schvey’s father, Norman, beat him. He once slapped the 5-year-old boy in the face for not thanking a waiter. Norman also incessantly argued with and beat Schvey’s mother, an indifferent homemaker with a fondness for quoting Shakespeare. Cops frequently visited the family’s apartment on Manhattan’s Upper East Side to break up fights, and Schvey and his younger brother sometimes discussed whether their father would kill their mother. After the inevitable divorce, Norman delayed alimony payments. Outside his home, the author found flawed and fleeting respite. A teacher at the Horace Mann School inspired his love of art and literature but was a pedophile. Schvey befriended a fellow counselor at a summer camp in upstate New York, but their earnest adolescent and mildly homoerotic relationship crumbled. At the University of Wisconsin, while riots over the Vietnam War disrupted Schvey’s education, he had his first affair with a graduate student instructor who turned out to be married. Schvey ultimately escaped New York by finding a sane Midwestern woman whom he married. After becoming a professor, he returned to New York to aid his dying but still abusive father and concluded the two would never reconcile. Keenly felt and elegantly written, this is a moving and sad account of a family that despite—or perhaps because of—all its power and wealth was profoundly troubled. Although Schvey shows contempt for his closest relatives, he paints balanced portraits of each of them. Their very humanness makes the book all the more tragic, touching, and affecting. Schvey’s sharp-edged humor—particularly when capturing the dialogue and mannerisms of his Jewish grandparents who tried to help —saves the author from wallowing in self-pity and gives a nice counterpoint to the “particularly virulent form” of illness called adolescence that he lived through and overcame.

A kind of nonfiction Portnoy’s Complaint but with a lot less sex; intricately renders a dysfunctional family’s life in the mid-20th century.

Pub Date: Sept. 6th, 2016
ISBN: 978-1-940442-16-7
Page count: 222pp
Publisher: Walrus Publishing
Program: Kirkus Indie
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