TAR BEACH by Richard Elman


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 Elman's 19th book (Disco Frito, 1988, etc.)--a Joycean-like symphony of voices set in 1947 on a ``tar beach,'' or rooftop sunbathing area, in Jewish Brooklyn--wears thin before its finish, but it does for its milieu what Nelson Algren did for his: finally it becomes so idiosyncratic that its peculiar language seems almost invented. Elman's twist is that his rooftop sunbathers often imagine that they're in Uganda (which was once offered to the Jews as a National Homeland) and speak a kind of pidgin (or Hollywood) African, calling each other ``Bwana,'' for example. The tar beach, set atop a synagogue, is a semiofficial hangout, a quasi- association of lodge brothers, and an endurance ritual: ``By mid- summer Izzy's face looks like the end cut on an eye-round....'' The characters, as odd as their language (a mixture of Yiddish, Brooklynese, and pidgin Swahili), include Izzy Berliner, a ``lost man, but not ordinary in his ways'' who has conducted a longtime affair with Lillian, who is married to Sam, who is having his own affairs (``And sex with someone from the office is also an inefficient way to run a business''). Lillian's son Peter Pintobasco (either Izzy or Sam may be his father) is the book's Stephen Daedalus: he's at the awkward age where sex and mortality are foremost on his mind, and his confusion often aptly reflects the Peyton Place anarchy that surrounds him. Elman, intoxicated with his own pizazz, shifts from character to character until the center fails to hold and Izzy leaves, Sam and Lillian remarry, and Peter himself comes of age, returning at the end for Izzy's funeral. A sex-saturated novel that celebrates the bright things of a lost world: at once a moving story of fathers and sons, a soap opera, and a tour de force that is both brilliantly inventive and flawed in the way it insistently calls attention to its language instead of its people.

Pub Date: Jan. 2nd, 1992
ISBN: 1-55713-117-1
Page count: 280pp
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1st, 1991