A fish-out-of-water tale of an outcast adolescent growing up in exile out in the Canadian wilderness.
Diaspora doesn’t generally lend itself to comedy, but it works pretty well in this distinctly Jewish coming-of-age novel by Wex (The Frumkiss Family Business, 2011, etc.). It concerns Yoine Levkes, a teen growing up in the desolation of Coalbanks, Alberta, post–World War II. Like many young people, he finds himself caught between the religious solemnity of his parents and the natural impulses of growing up. And like smart young people in his situation, he’s painfully aware of the limitations of his situation. “If only Tradition had barfed me forth onto the dry sands of Western civilization, I could have grown into a big shot, a contender; a stammering, nattering, chest-pulling Jewish intellectual with nothing on my mind but social justice and yellow-pubed shiksas, the hero of a thousand novels,” he muses. Acting as our narrator, Yoine is smart—smarter, really, than a character of his age and demeanor has any right to be, but it’s his quick-witted running commentary that carries the novel more than its minimal plot. However, Wex does excel at building incongruous characters who demonstrate the counterintuitive complexities of Jewish life—the radical poet who publishes pornography for gentiles to fuel his agenda is just one highlight. “I get fathers coming to see me with pictures of their daughters shtupping horses, and this is at least eighty percent of the population—and I use their money to exalt, to try to keep alive the only culture in the world that knows from good and evil, from life and death, and from life that’s worse than death.” But even a death in the family brings no gravity to this feathery story, as Yoine’s goals consist mostly of getting into the pants of girlfriend Sabina Mandelbroit.
Wex's humorous writing is crisp. Note: There's a lot of Yiddish threaded through the story, so the glossary at the back of the book may prove helpful.