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THE MIGHTY WALZER by Howard Jacobson Kirkus Star


by Howard Jacobson

Pub Date: March 29th, 2011
ISBN: 978-1-60819-685-2
Publisher: Bloomsbury

An entertaining Jewish picaresque novel, following on Jacobson’s Man Booker Prize–winning The Finkler Question (2010).

This roman à clef is a Rothian romp, a Goodbye, Columbus across the water in Manchester, where we find young Oliver Walzer desperately trying to do what young men try to do, namely satisfy their baser urges while grappling with whoever the hell they are. Oliver’s not sure of any of this, and it doesn’t help that he falls under the tutelage of a ping-pong patzer, and maybe even goniff, with the resonant name of Sheeny Waxman, who has a gift for confusing things. The association is natural, and if Oliver doesn’t quite experience the “slow awakening of genius” that the novel grandly announces in its very first paragraph, then he enjoys a lively sentimental education all the same. Oliver has a family tradition to uphold: His schlimazel of a pop was an ascended master of the yo-yo, after all, and now Oliver has to carve his own reputation into the gates of Birmingham with his own chosen instrument (“cometh the hour, cometh the toy”); Oliver also strives to rise above his origins, since, as he puts it, “all we’d been doing since the Middle Ages was growing beetroot and running away from Cossacks.” Yet, hormone-driven as he is, Oliver has other aspirations, most of them things that inspire reverential circumlocution (“Mr Waxman drove her to Miles Platting, a considerable distance from her home, requested that she allow him to perform an indecent act upon her, and when she again refused he unceremoniously ordered her to get out of his car”). Will Oliver attain his several goals? That’s the question that awaits the young man who thinks of himself as a mediocre being, a Kafkaesque bug, as, worst of all, “So-So Walzer.” Jacobson is a sympathetic narrator, but not above poking fun at his characters and poking holes in their pretenses—and clearly having fun as he does so.

A delight from start to finish, and a note-perfect evocation of the gray 1950s.