A New Jersey family breaks up, and an unhappy teenager finds his vocation amid Times Square sleaze in the mid-1970s.
The Arbuses used to be the kind of affluent, assimilated suburban Jews that Braff anatomized in his brutally funny debut, The Unthinkable Thoughts of Jacob Green (2004)—except that Martin made a living running burlesque joints, and wife Miriam was one of the strippers before she had two kids. Now, in the spring of 1975, she and 15-year-old Debra are about to become baalai teshuva, converts to a Hasidic sect, while Martin and 17-year-old David seethe in disbelief. David’s narration shows him struggling with his mother, who wants him to “embrace the life I’ve found.” He can’t, but he’s not happy living with his father in Manhattan, where burlesque is giving way to hardcore peep shows and sex-toy shops. Martin refuses to adapt to changes he finds repulsive, though business associates are making unheard-of profits and the old ways are money-losers. Miriam wants to keep her daughter away from her secular ex-husband and son, and David’s efforts to stay in touch lead to a disastrous Atlantic City jaunt with Debra, a Hasidic school friend, Martin and his stripper girlfriend, who puts makeup on the two girls. Miriam, enraged, won’t forgive David even at Martin’s hospital bedside after he’s diagnosed with cancer. Flash forward to 1977, when live peep shows are being squeezed out by video porn, and David’s photos of Times Square hang in the Sixty-Niner Diner: “an actual museum inside a dildo shop.” He’s still pining for his mother, and it’s one of Braff’s great achievements that we understand this. Miriam is often cruel as she clings to reassuring rules, but she’s also miserable and conflicted, not knowing how to integrate her love for her son with the life she’s chosen. The novel ends on the day of 17-year-old Debra’s wedding, with the rabbi brokering a détente that readers will hope grows into lasting reconciliation for these touchingly vulnerable, painfully recognizable characters.
Humane, compassionate and very moving.