INSIDE, OUTSIDE

A NOVEL

Israel David Goodkind, 58 in 1973, Zionist lawyer and quintessential "American Jew," recalls his growing-up years (1920-1941) in loving, leisurely, anecdotal detail—with a few digressions into his present-day feelings about the inside/outside Jewish-American identity. In fact, Wouk gives his fictional alter-ego plenty of 1973 matters to brood on: Goodkind is a recently appointed Special Assistant (for cultural/Jewish matters) to Watergate-enmired Pres. Nixon—a crook, perhaps, but the Jews' best White House friend "since Truman"; Goodkind's daughter, once leftishly anti-Israel, is about to undergo a Zionist/Roots awakening during the Yom Kippur War; his aged mother falls ill during a trip to Israel; and Goodkind himself plays a small role in the War, as a go-between for Nixon and Golda Melt. Fortunately, however, these rather preachy concerns get very little emphasis here. Instead, Goodkind gives most of the space to his affectionate memoirs, a "lighthearted gambol" that stresses Wouk's comic/satiric gifts—even as it leans hard on the familiar theme of Jewish tradition vs. assimilation. First come episodes from "a supersaturated Jewish" childhood in the 1920s Bronx: proud, pushy Mama, daughter and granddaughter of Minsk rabbis; mild, wise Papa, overworked laundry-operator; ancient Bobbeh, prone to depression and epically smelly cookery ("The Sauerkraut Crisis"); beloved Zaideh, inspiring guide in the challenging study of the Talmud; hapless in-laws galore; early glimpses of the world "outside," of dirty talk, of anti-Semitism; and an unforgettable bar mitzva—when Mama plants an embarrassingly inflated story in the Bronx Home News and supervises the stuffing of an historically immense kishka. ("It went twisting all through the place, in and out of the rooms, sort of like a fire hose"—and bitter sister Lee had to "keep it off the floors, and arrange it so that guests when they arrived wouldn't get all tangled up in the kishka, or roped off by it from the drinks.") Later the family makes the breathless move to Manhattan—as Goodkind opts for Townsend Harris Hall and Columbia over yeshiva, becomes something of an "unbeliever," yet remains essentially devout. There are the usual fumbles at teenage lechery, a farcically disastrous first Big Date, romantic disillusionments. There's an odd chumship with ever-sneering classmate Peter Quat, who is destined to become (by 1973) the famously foul author of Onan's Way and My Cock, a Philip Roth-like novelist of American-Jewish alienation. (As for Goodkind, "I've never had much of a hang-up about being Jewish.") And, following Quat's lead, Goodkind puts off law school for a couple of years, working instead as a radio-comedy writer—while falling in problematic lust-and-love with non-Jewish showgirl Bobbie Webb: it's a doomed romance that will finally be abandoned. . . after the 1941 death of Goodkind's father. Here, and throughout, Wouk's viewpoints (traditional, Orthodox, Zionist) sometimes emerge in unappetizing flavors—platitudinous, sermonizing, complacently holier-than-thou. (The name "Goodkind" is no accident.) Whenever the mood turns serious the prose turns into a mush of clich‚s—while Wouk's material (devoid of suspense, short on character and plot) seems more suited to a 200-page memoir than a 650-page fiction. Still, if little more than an avuncular series of growing-up vignettes, this near-endless kishka of a novel is generously stuffed with zestfully old-fashioned humor and sentiment—from Old Country family-feuds (with genuine Sholom Aleichem edges) to vibrant 1930s show-biz farce at Harry Goldhandler's comedy-factory. (The young Herman Wouk worked as a comedy-writer for Fred Allen.) So even those Jewish readers more in sympathy with Roth than Wouk will find solid chunks of entertainment here—while older, more conservative Jewish readers will be both entranced and fortified: "I think my Mom and Pop much more nearly represented 'the American Jewish experience' than Peter Quat's diverting sex-mad college professors. . .

Pub Date: April 2, 1985

ISBN: 0316955299

Page Count: 656

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: Oct. 7, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 1985

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Miller makes Homer pertinent to women facing 21st-century monsters.

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CIRCE

A retelling of ancient Greek lore gives exhilarating voice to a witch.

“Monsters are a boon for gods. Imagine all the prayers.” So says Circe, a sly, petulant, and finally commanding voice that narrates the entirety of Miller’s dazzling second novel. The writer returns to Homer, the wellspring that led her to an Orange Prize for The Song of Achilles (2012). This time, she dips into The Odyssey for the legend of Circe, a nymph who turns Odysseus’ crew of men into pigs. The novel, with its distinctive feminist tang, starts with the sentence: “When I was born, the name for what I was did not exist.” Readers will relish following the puzzle of this unpromising daughter of the sun god Helios and his wife, Perse, who had negligible use for their child. It takes banishment to the island Aeaea for Circe to sense her calling as a sorceress: “I will not be like a bird bred in a cage, I thought, too dull to fly even when the door stands open. I stepped into those woods and my life began.” This lonely, scorned figure learns herbs and potions, surrounds herself with lions, and, in a heart-stopping chapter, outwits the monster Scylla to propel Daedalus and his boat to safety. She makes lovers of Hermes and then two mortal men. She midwifes the birth of the Minotaur on Crete and performs her own C-section. And as she grows in power, she muses that “not even Odysseus could talk his way past [her] witchcraft. He had talked his way past the witch instead.” Circe’s fascination with mortals becomes the book’s marrow and delivers its thrilling ending. All the while, the supernatural sits intriguingly alongside “the tonic of ordinary things.” A few passages coil toward melodrama, and one inelegant line after a rape seems jarringly modern, but the spell holds fast. Expect Miller’s readership to mushroom like one of Circe’s spells.

Miller makes Homer pertinent to women facing 21st-century monsters.

Pub Date: April 10, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-316-55634-7

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: Jan. 23, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2018

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THE SECRET HISTORY

The Brat Pack meets The Bacchae in this precious, way-too-long, and utterly unsuspenseful town-and-gown murder tale. A bunch of ever-so-mandarin college kids in a small Vermont school are the eager epigones of an aloof classics professor, and in their exclusivity and snobbishness and eagerness to please their teacher, they are moved to try to enact Dionysian frenzies in the woods. During the only one that actually comes off, a local farmer happens upon them—and they kill him. But the death isn't ruled a murder—and might never have been if one of the gang—a cadging sybarite named Bunny Corcoran—hadn't shown signs of cracking under the secret's weight. And so he too is dispatched. The narrator, a blank-slate Californian named Richard Pepen chronicles the coverup. But if you're thinking remorse-drama, conscience masque, or even semi-trashy who'll-break-first? page-turner, forget it: This is a straight gee-whiz, first-to-have-ever-noticed college novel—"Hampden College, as a body, was always strangely prone to hysteria. Whether from isolation, malice, or simple boredom, people there were far more credulous and excitable than educated people are generally thought to be, and this hermetic, overheated atmosphere made it a thriving black petri dish of melodrama and distortion." First-novelist Tartt goes muzzy when she has to describe human confrontations (the murder, or sex, or even the ping-ponging of fear), and is much more comfortable in transcribing aimless dorm-room paranoia or the TV shows that the malefactors anesthetize themselves with as fate ticks down. By telegraphing the murders, Tartt wants us to be continually horrified at these kids—while inviting us to semi-enjoy their manneristic fetishes and refined tastes. This ersatz-Fitzgerald mix of moralizing and mirror-looking (Jay McInerney shook and poured the shaker first) is very 80's—and in Tartt's strenuous version already seems dated, formulaic. Les Nerds du Mal—and about as deep (if not nearly as involving) as a TV movie.

Pub Date: Sept. 16, 1992

ISBN: 1400031702

Page Count: 592

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 1992

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