JAIMIE by John Becker


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Though subtitled ""An Autobiographical Novel in Short Stories,"" these nine spare, literate tales--some written as ""I,"" some in the third person--don't really add up to a satisfying life-history of Jaimie Hoch, cosmopolitan scion (born before WW I) of a rich Chicago-Jewish family. But a few of Becker's family-grounded stories do have a gracefully straightforward passion; and the collection is held together as much by social preoccupations (rich vs. poor, master vs. servant) as by the central figure--who, unfortunately, one likes rather less and less as the book goes on. In the first two pieces, young Jaimie, inadequately loved by his posh parents, hungrily draws in affection from other, parentally unacceptable sources: from older girl cousins (who dress him up to go begging), from handsome chauffeur Schultz (who steals the family car, flees to Detroit, and is followed by the loyal 13-year-old). And this theme is made even more explicit in the next story--about unprepossessing cousin Hubert, who, though looked down on by Jaimie's mother, ""knows how to love"" (and winds up marrying the illegitimate daughter of Jaimie's grandfather . . . who also knew how to love). But thereafter, while the love-starvation motif recurs, the title character slips out of focus: ""Lorie"" is Jaimie's born-poor secretary (he now runs an art gallery), who weds a ""nickel-plated prince"" and loses her soul to conspicuous consumption; ""The Gold Star"" (in which Jaimie hardly appears) follows a deluded, newly wealthy woman and the young G.I. lover who greedily fills the role of her fantasy son. And though the final four stories do return Jaimie to centerstage, plotting (some of it melodramatic) overshadows character: in ""A Family Affair,"" Jaimie comes home from Vienna to his ill father's Chicago bedside, learning (too late to avoid incest) that his father has an illegitimate daughter; ""Bella Figura"" is a familiar comedy of servants running their masters, Italian-style (Jaimie now lives in Rome with wife Pamela and kids); in ""After Geneva,"" Jaimie and Pamela argue over how to handle their 13-year-old daughter's first sexual romance; and ""Dear Katie"" finds Jaimie about ten years later, divorced, in a crisis (his daughter in the hospital, his son-in-law dead), and realizing that new love Katie is another inadequate one: ""You just weren't ready for the 'better or worse,' you hadn't grown up and I didn't help you on the way."" As always in such gatherings, there's some subtle pleasure in linking up bits of information and patterns of behavior, filling spaces with the imagination. But here the spaces are huge gaps, raising too many unanswered questions--and the result is an often-attractive, sedately glamorous group of stories which only sporadically makes direct emotional contact.

Pub Date: Sept. 24th, 1981
Publisher: Godine