A skimpy narrative and redundant emphases on the burdens and mysteries of Judaism drain the life out of Skibell’s initially promising second (after A Blessing on the Moon, 1997).
The story begins smartly, in the American Southwest, where academic and musicologist Charles Belski is dragged into vacationing by his very blond and Waspish wife Isabelle. Charles, who narrates, is a petulant perfectionist whose morose wit—compounded of his culture’s and his family’s generational sufferings, and also his own innate fatalism—often makes him sound like Humbert Humbert inveighing against American trash culture. He’s “a typical male epithalamiophobe” nevertheless essentially happily married; a reluctant father; and a theoretical atheist who logically asserts that “one needn’t believe in God in order to feel abandoned by Him.” As long as Skibell is winging it back and forth between Charles’s state of suspended bilious animation and flashbacks showing us how he got to be that way, The English Disease (which malady, incidentally, is reputedly melancholy) is enormously winning. Then Charles travels to Krakow to attend a Wagner conference, thence to the Auschwitz Museum, accompanied by his obese, stentorian colleague Leibowitz—and the novel devolves into a series of declamations and meditations on anti-Semitism, the ordeal of the European Jews, and the absurdity of embracing ideologies. Skibell tries to keep it moving, but the poisonously gregarious Leibowitz bores us almost as much as he annoys Belski, and things grow awfully static. Skibell recovers somewhat by returning Charles to the terrors of domesticity, and concludes with an interesting (if overlong) account of the energetic, ever suggestible Isabelle’s passionate conversion. It’s a shame she wasn’t around in Poland, for Isabelle is easily the most engaging character here.
Insufficient plot here, and the argument is overinsistent and oppressive.