An uneven third collection from Neugeboren, author of seven novels and two memoirs (Open Heart: A Patient’s Story of Life-Saving Medicine and Life-Giving Friendship, 2003, etc.).
A gushing, memoirish preface about “the making of stories” and an extended Note on the Dedication (to a long-lost relative) mar the opening and foreshadow the volume’s virtues and flaws. The best of the dozen stories (“Good in Bed,” about a “word-smart” professor in the preliminary rounds of a divorce; “His Violin,” about a denizen of Century Village in Palm Beach who passes along a family secret in gratitude to his favorite nephew, a lawyer who handled the details of his brother’s funeral; and “Poppa’s Books,” about a narrator who shows how much he treasures his immigrant father’s precious library, only to be chastised by his mother) are cleanly written and close to the bone. Others are disjointed, unfocused and sentimental, like “The American Sun & Wind Moving Company,” about a young man who’s out of his depth as an auteur in the family enterprise of making a movie near an icy lake in Fort Lee, N.J., in November 1915; and “The Golden Years,” about two brothers visiting the set of a film being made in their Florida retirement “village.” The story of a “profoundly inhibited” 40-something divorcée keeps a promise to herself to visit the death camps if she and her children “survived one another” after her husband left (“This Third Life”) is both ambitious and yet slight. The title piece follows a rabbi through a day as he deals with a variety of dilemmas while bearing the knowledge that he and his wife have had a bitter battle. He renews his faith in the teachings of the Torah, opens his mind and then his heart to his wife and community in a transformation that reminds us what a master storyteller Neugeboren can be.
As is, not Neugeboren’s best, though a judicious pruning might have helped.