OLD WORLD, NEW WORLD by Mark Dintenfass


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Recollections of Brooklyn Jewish family life made up half of Dintenfass' last book, Montgomery Street, where they Shared space with a lot of intense material about creativity and art. Here, however, the Brooklyn story is more straightforwardly center-stage--in the heavily written, zestless, dour saga of the Leiber family. The clan patriarch, introduced in 1919, is Jacob, a haunted, pious, essentially weak man. Matriarch Sophie is far shrewder and stronger--and she gives birth to eight children. Eldest son Sam takes over Jacob's ramshackle book store on Livonia Avenue, transforming it into a chocolate shop and then further into a mini-empire: a chocolate-factory-and-retail-store. The others: Molly, many times married, increasingly obese; Deborah, unlucky in first love, thereafter a spinster spiritualist; Hymie, schizophrenic, long institutionalized; Walter the intellectual (during McCarthy days, he so much wants the virtues of persecution that he writes an anonymous letter fingering himself to the FBI); the social butterflies Ruthie and Evelyn (with their shlemihl and no-goodnik husbands); and the youngest--golden dentist-to-be Moe. There's some confusion in trying to keep the sibling stories straight here. The resulting lack of involvement is further heightened by Dintenfass' distant, detached perspective--which often involves wordy interjections: ""Expectations: the tricks the imps of desire play upon the mortal limits of our lives. What the mind grasps in its craving, what desire can merely imagine, the simple heart hurries to devour."" And, in the third generation, he wades into the deracinated spiritual difficulties of the Leiber grand-kids (a lesbian, an angst-filled professor, a brilliant paleontologist who meets her end in Africa when a crocodile eats her). Only in one scene, in fact, do the characters become immediate, vivid, human: when Sam comes to the family for money, old scabs are torn off, notes are called in--to squabbling, litigious, magnificent effect. Elsewhere, however, Dintenfass sacrifices likelike tangibility for lordly long views and big pictures. Only occasionally involving, then, and too sepulchral and ponderous for most of the mainstream saga audience.

Pub Date: Feb. 11th, 1981
Publisher: Morrow