A scorching disquisition on (British) Jewish identity, spun from an unspeakable criminal act.
Jacobson’s ninth novel (The Making of Henry, 2004, etc.) makes powerfully relevant use of his trademark ferocious wit and excoriating commentary. His narrator is cartoonist Max Glickman, who grew up in central England in the 1950s, the son of a Jew who was both a boxing enthusiast and an atheist, sick and tired of the whole business of Jewishness. Together with his Holocaust-obsessed friend Manny Washinsky, the neurotic son of Orthodox parents, Max planned a series of books to change the world, starting with Five Thousand Years of Bitterness, “a comic-book history of the sufferings of the Jewish people over the last five millennia.” But the boys grew up and went their separate ways, Max to art school and three unsuccessful marriages (two to shiksahs), Manny to prison for murder. Their reunion, decades later, financed by a television company interested in Manny’s story, is the impetus for Max’s sprawling web of a memoir. His attempts to understand Manny’s actions are expressed in a narrative that is part comic history, part tirade, part lacerating analysis of the nature of Jewishness and its terrible parasite, anti-Semitism. Affectionate memories of kalooki nights, when his mother played cards with her Jewish friends, and of his father’s circle of free-thinking intellectuals, are contrasted with outrageously sardonic observations on his race and its sufferings. “We are a self-defeating, self-disgusted, self-eviscerating people, but we couldn’t have got there without outside help,” says Max, whose self-hatred comes in many forms, including erotic fantasies about Ilse Koch, the bitch of Buchenwald. The explanation for Manny’s actions, when it comes, is an attempt at wrapping up the entire, intricate dilemma of Jewish heritage.
Jacobson’s account of a life of “jokes, Jews, bitterness, and whys” is clever, celebratory, condemnatory, excessive, overwhelming and unique.