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INSIDE, OUTSIDE by Herman Wouk Kirkus Star


A Novel

by Herman Wouk

Pub Date: April 2nd, 1985
ISBN: 0316955299
Publisher: Little, Brown

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. . .