Young Eddie Steinberg, growing up in 1950s Corvallis, Oregon, visits his maternal grandparents in Los Angeles in this child’s-eye view of the world of adults.
Malamud’s (Old Poems, New Translations: Two Books of Verse, 2013) novel focuses on Eddie’s California visit to his beloved “Granny.” It’s an evocative portrayal of a young boy passionately entranced by sunny California and on the brink of comprehending the complexities of human interactions. The author’s chapterlong depiction of the three-day journey by train from Corvallis to Los Angeles captures young Eddie’s visceral sense of excitement and wonder as he’s lulled by the sound of the wheels on the tracks, the swaying of the cars, and the scenery rushing past his window. Eddie’s world exists in the moment, and the book is filled with meticulously written observations of details of ordinary life, allowing Malamud to turn a simple gas-station stop into an anecdote-worthy event: “He got back in the car. His grandfather got in. The drama of turning the key in the lock, the motor purring to life, the slow slide out of the gas station, with the smooth Buick full of luxurious gas.” Sometimes, the moments are filled with the magic of imaginative flights of fantasy, especially when Eddie is denied something he really wants: “He’d have a swimming pool, and fill it with ice cream and chocolate sauce. And everyone in the world would admire him for doing it.” The bulk of the novel takes place during the family’s 1958 excursion, during which Eddie spends three weeks alone with his grandparents. Two more annual summer visits follow, and each time Granny and Gramps, a voice instructor, rent a different house furnished with a different piano. The story then surges a bit jarringly forward, with the family moving East as Eddie’s father becomes a successful writer—think Bernard Malamud, the author’s late father—in a short catch-up that brings Eddie into his late 20s.
This book’s portrayal of childhood exuberance and petulance, vivid characters, and Eddie’s ephemeral sense of melancholy should keep readers hooked until the end.