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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A magnificent achievement: a novel that is, by turns, both optimistic and fatalistic, idealistic without being naïve.

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THE OVERSTORY

Powers’ (Orfeo, 2014, etc.) 12th novel is a masterpiece of operatic proportions, involving nine central characters and more than half a century of American life.

In this work, Powers takes on the subject of nature, or our relationship to nature, as filtered through the lens of environmental activism, although at its heart the book is after more existential concerns. As is the case with much of Powers’ fiction, it takes shape slowly—first in a pastiche of narratives establishing the characters (a psychologist, an undergraduate who died briefly but was revived, a paraplegic computer game designer, a homeless vet), and then in the kaleidoscopic ways these individuals come together and break apart. “We all travel the Milky Way together, trees and men,” Powers writes, quoting the naturalist John Muir. “In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks.” The idea is important because what Powers means to explore is a sense of how we become who we are, individually and collectively, and our responsibility to the planet and to ourselves. Nick, for instance, continues a project begun by his grandfather to take repeated photographs of a single chestnut tree, “one a month for seventy-six years.” Pat, a visionary botanist, discovers how trees communicate with one another only to be discredited and then, a generation later, reaffirmed. What links the characters is survival—the survival of both trees and human beings. The bulk of the action unfolds during the timber wars of the late 1990s, as the characters coalesce on the Pacific coast to save old-growth sequoia from logging concerns. For Powers, however, political or environmental activism becomes a filter through which to consider the connectedness of all things—not only the human lives he portrays in often painfully intricate dimensions, but also the biosphere, both virtual and natural. “The world starts here,” Powers insists. “This is the merest beginning. Life can do anything. You have no idea.”

A magnificent achievement: a novel that is, by turns, both optimistic and fatalistic, idealistic without being naïve.

Pub Date: April 3, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-393-63552-2

Page Count: 512

Publisher: Norton

Review Posted Online: Jan. 23, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2018

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Tinny perhaps, but still a minutely rendered and impressively steady feminist vision of apocalypse.

THE HANDMAID'S TALE

The time is the not-so-distant future, when the US's spiraling social freedoms have finally called down a reaction, an Iranian-style repressive "monotheocracy" calling itself the Republic of Gilead—a Bible-thumping, racist, capital-punishing, and misogynistic rule that would do away with pleasure altogether were it not for one thing: that the Gileadan women, pure and true (as opposed to all the nonbelieving women, those who've ever been adulterous or married more than once), are found rarely fertile.

Thus are drafted a whole class of "handmaids," whose function is to bear the children of the elite, to be fecund or else (else being certain death, sent out to be toxic-waste removers on outlying islands). The narrative frame for Atwood's dystopian vision is the hopeless private testimony of one of these surrogate mothers, Offred ("of" plus the name of her male protector). Lying cradled by the body of the barren wife, being meanwhile serviced by the husband, Offred's "ceremony" must be successful—if she does not want to join the ranks of the other disappeared (which include her mother, her husband—dead—and small daughter, all taken away during the years of revolt). One Of her only human conduits is a gradually developing affair with her master's chauffeur—something that's balanced more than offset, though, by the master's hypocritically un-Puritan use of her as a kind of B-girl at private parties held by the ruling men in a spirit of nostalgia and lust. This latter relationship, edging into real need (the master's), is very effectively done; it highlights the handmaid's (read Everywoman's) eternal exploitation, profane or sacred ("We are two-legged wombs, that's all: sacred vessels, ambulatory chalices"). Atwood, to her credit, creates a chillingly specific, imaginable night-mare. The book is short on characterization—this is Atwood, never a warm writer, at her steeliest—and long on cynicism—it's got none of the human credibility of a work such as Walker Percy's Love In The Ruins. But the scariness is visceral, a world that's like a dangerous and even fatal grid, an electrified fence.

Tinny perhaps, but still a minutely rendered and impressively steady feminist vision of apocalypse.

Pub Date: Feb. 17, 1985

ISBN: 038549081X

Page Count: -

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Review Posted Online: Sept. 16, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 1985

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