Off the shelf | Family conflict, scandal flavor three debut novels

Three striking debut novels dealing with complicated Jewish family legacies may fit the bill for those seeking summer reading pleasure. All three were released this spring.

“The Book of Stone” is an incendiary novel from Jonathan Papernick, the Toronto-born author of two fine story collections, “The Ascent of Eli Israel” and “There Is No Other.” Set in Brooklyn between the 1991 Crown Heights riots and 9/11, it follows 25-year-old Matthew Stone in the immediate aftermath of the death of his father, Walter. Matthew is perennially meek, aimless and self-destructive, while Walter, a once prominent judge who had been thrown off the bench for rigging a jury, had been forceful and purposeful. And Walter was an admirer of Zionist leader Ze’ev Jabotinsky and a fervent proponent of Israeli expansionism. He co-founded the Eretz Fund, which helped finance settlement activities in the West Bank, and were also suspected of being used to support acts of violence.

Matthew is named in Walter’s will as the new chairman of the Eretz Fund, and a large cast of characters quickly enters his life. They include Zalman, a charismatic rabbi in a West Bank Jewish settlement and co-founder of the Eretz Fund, who is after money that has mysteriously been diverted from the fund’s bank account; Matthew’s mother, who had left the family when Matthew was quite young; a Jewish FBI agent who suspects that a terrorist operation is being planned; and Dasi, a young woman whom Matthew falls for romantically, but whose loyalties are suspect.

Matthew eventually finds himself taking up the cause of the extremists. As the stakes grow, however, he maintains little self-awareness, and fails to see how his involvement stems less from conviction than as a means to assuage his feelings of inadequacy, and to give his life new purpose.

Ultimately, the explosive storyline about a possible Jewish terror plot excited me less than the portrait of Matthew, one of the more memorably pathetic figures in recent literature. It hurts to watch him attempt to establish a post facto relationship with his father that transcends the troubled one shared during Walter’s lifetime. And this librarian was particularly pleased by the central role of Walter’s extensive book collection — as a vehicle used by Walter to transmit secrets, and by Matthew to attempt to understand his father.

Books also play a number of roles in “The Last Flight of Poxl West” by Daniel Torday, who directs the creative writing program at Bryn Mawr College. Narrator Elijah Goldstein is a suburban Boston teenager in 1986 when Uncle Poxl (not actually a relative, but a family friend who assumed the role of surrogate grandfather) publishes his memoir, titled “Skylock.”

The memoir — which tells of Poxl’s youth as Leopold Weisberg in interwar Czechoslovakia, his flight to Rotterdam and London (“flight” takes on multiple meanings over the course of the novel), and his stint as a bomber pilot in the Royal Air Force — becomes a great success. Elijah is filled with pride in seeing the stories with which his uncle has regaled him assume prominence in the larger culture. The plot soon thickens, however, and my aversion to spoilers forces me to leave it at that.

It is a daringly structured novel, with lengthy chapters of Poxl’s memoir alternating with “interludes” in Elijah’s voice. It works surprisingly well, although I was not convinced that the memoir could have been a bestseller. I found Poxl’s and Elijah’s unresolved intergenerational relationship compelling: Poxl grants young Elijah an alternative to the narrative of Jewish victimhood, presenting “what every Ashkenazi kid in America needed without knowing he needed it: a Jewish war hero.” But Elijah fails to see the bigger picture of Poxl’s life, and perhaps the more complex reasons that we tell stories.

Michelle Brafman’s “Washing the Dead” is another unconventionally told novel, with its narrative moving back and forth across four decades. Poignantly, the book begins with its narrator, Barbara Pupnick Blumfield, in for a prenatal ultrasound, revealing her desperate hope that she is not carrying a girl in her womb. Which, of course, she is. And we soon learn of the toxic mother-daughter dynamics that have done much to define her life.

We return to Barbara’s youth in a small Orthodox community in Milwaukee, where her family and the rabbi’s family are close, and her best friend is the rabbi’s daughter. That world comes to an end when Barbara’s mother becomes romantically involved with the non-Jewish man hired to look after synagogue matters during the Sabbath. When the synagogue community gets wind of it, Barbara is sent off to California to be away from her mother. When she comes back, her relationship with her mother has taken such a tumble that she returns to California voluntarily.

Barbara makes a complete break from her childhood friends and from Orthodoxy. She maintains a degree of connection with her mother, who is beset by depression, but it is an uneasy relationship. Eventually, Barbara’s own daughter, Lili, enters her teen years, and new mother-daughter complications emerge.

The many strained and discarded relationships plead for resolution, and an opportunity occurs when middle-aged Barbara receives a surprising invitation from her childhood rabbi’s wife to return to Milwaukee to participate in the pre-burial washing of the body of Barbara’s beloved childhood teacher. Her visit will serve as an opportunity to confront her past, seek her mother’s unhappy secrets, and both extend and seek forgiveness. The Jewish rituals of purification play a part in helping to restore the broken pieces.

“The Book of Stone” by Jonathan Papernick (389 pages, Fig Tree Books)

“The Last Flight of Poxl West” by Daniel Torday (304 pages, St. Martin’s Press)

“Washing the Dead” by Michelle Brafman (344 pages, Prospect Park Books)

Howard Freedman
is the director of the Jewish Community Library, a program of Jewish LearningWorks, in San Francisco. All books mentioned in this column may be borrowed from the library.

Howard Freedman
Howard Freedman

Howard Freedman is the director of the Jewish Community Library, a program of Jewish LearningWorks, in San Francisco. All books mentioned in his column may be borrowed from the library.