A heartfelt, harrowing novel about an unlikely friendship between a college hockey jock and an elderly Holocaust survivor.
Star hockey player Riley Hunter is failing his sociology class at the University of Minnesota, so his professor offers him an unusual extra-credit assignment. Although he’d much rather be on the ice, he begrudgingly agrees to serve as a companion for the elderly Jens Jaenisch, a reclusive and mysterious retired professor. It’s clear that Jens is hiding something, and as Riley attempts to uncover the mystery, he discovers he and the elderly man have more in common than he initially thought. Fridgen (Ruth 3:5, 2012) offers a compelling story within a story: As Riley grapples with an unyielding coach, an overbearing mother and a teammate’s devastating accident, Jens recounts his teenage years imprisoned in a concentration camp after he was caught kissing another man. At the camp, gays were known as “pinks,” after the pink triangles they had to wear on their uniforms, and were even lower on the totem pole than Jewish prisoners. Jens did anything he could to keep from being killed; providing sexual favors for soldiers and officers became routine, and Fridgen has Jens recount each encounter in sickening detail: “I have never forgotten his sounds and his taste,” Jens says, remembering when he was forced into oral sex on the train to Buchenwald. Throughout the novel, Jens’ recollections are gripping, grotesque and heartbreaking. In comparison, Riley’s far-less-interesting narrative feels, at times, like a bland movie-of-the-week. Also, the novel’s odd plot twists and often stilted dialogue (“I just do not want you to be awkward around me, and I feel bad that I wasn’t honest with you”) can be unconvincing. Overall, however, it remains an engrossing story of two very different men overcoming their struggles together.
An often captivating novel that explores a tender relationship between an older man haunted by his past and a college athlete unsure about his future.