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Joshua Henkin has lived in New York for most of his life, but he spent four formative years in his mid-20s in Berkeley and San Francisco. Between 1987 and 1991, he worked at Tikkun magazine and was a freelance journalist and a tutor. He also taught Hebrew school at Congregation Beth El in Berkeley.
The 57-year-old author, who has a new novel coming out June 15, said that period of his life was crucial in his development as a serious writer of fiction.
“I grew up on the East Coast in a world where there were pretty traditional ideas about what a nice Jewish boy should do, and I’m not sure being a fiction writer was one of them,” Henkin said via Zoom from his Brooklyn home. “I think being away from that world, and being in the Bay Area, gave me the freedom to do something that I might not have done if I hadn’t come to the Bay Area.”
“Morningside Heights,” Henkin’s fourth novel, is named for the Manhattan neighborhood surrounding Columbia University where the couple at the heart of the story live. (It is also where Henkin grew up.) In 1976, Spence, a young Columbia English professor, falls in love with one of his graduate students, a Midwestern transplant named Pru. They get married and have a daughter. Spence wins awards for his scholarship and a MacArthur “genius grant,” but he begins to lose his train of thought while teaching and receives a diagnosis of early-onset Alzheimer’s at age 59. The novel examines how the people in his orbit, including his children, friends and caretakers, handle his decline.
“Henkin specializes in melancholy stories about complicated families, and this one is a real heartbreaker,” the Kirkus review reads. “His portrait of Pru is nuanced and sensitive, following her into one of the darkest places a spouse can go and hitting the notes just right.”
One conversation between a still-lucid Spence (who speaks first) and Pru is especially poignant:
“Tell me all the things I’m going to forget.”
“With every person it’s different.”
“Will I forget to love you?”
“I hope not.”
“Don’t let me forget to love you.”
Henkin’s late father, Louis, was the inspiration for the Spence character. A professor at Columbia Law School for nearly 50 years, he developed Alzheimer’s in his late 80s.
Asked if he researched the topic for the book, Henkin replied, “Going through it with him was more than enough research.”
Though much of the novel takes place back East, Spence’s hippie ex-wife, Linda, and their son, Arlo, spend some time in the Bay Area. Full of resentment toward his absent father, Arlo works at a Wendy’s in Oakland after graduating from high school. “Arlo was on his feet all day, and he smelled of cow fat and pig fat. But he could endure any humiliation as long as his father was tethered to him in his misery,” Henkin writes. (A tech whiz, Arlo goes on to work at Yahoo and earn millions during the dot-com era.)
The Bay Area appears in all of Henkin’s novels in some way, he said. (“Maybe that’s because I tend to write about places I know.”) His other books are “Swimming Across the Hudson,” “Matrimony” and “The World Without You,” which won the 2012 Edward Lewis Wallant Award for Jewish American Fiction and was a finalist for the 2012 National Jewish Book Award.
Henkin’s younger brother, David, a co-founder of the Mission Minyan in San Francisco, recalled the years that he and Joshua were in the Bay Area at the same time. When they both lived in San Francisco, the two would often spend Friday nights together in the Haight and go to shul in the Sunset or Richmond on Saturday mornings. On Saturday afternoons, Joshua would browse the fiction aisles at the Booksmith.
“I don’t think I would have guessed, when he was growing up, when he was in college, or even when he first moved to the Bay Area for Tikkun, that he would pursue creative writing,” David Henkin told J. in an email. “And of course no one ever really expects to make a living off of it, but we [the family] are all extremely proud that he has been so successful.” (He added that he does not have much “critical distance” from his brother’s stories because “many scenarios and anecdotes are drawn from the reservoir of his own family experience.”)
Like their father, all three Henkin brothers are teachers. Joshua is the director of the MFA fiction writing program at Brooklyn College, David is a history professor at UC Berkeley and Daniel is a music teacher in New York.
“I feel like teaching helps me every day be a better writer,” Joshua noted.
The Henkin brothers were raised in an observant household, and there are strong Jewish images and themes throughout “Morningside Heights.” Spence’s grandfather was a rabbi, but Spence didn’t have a bar mitzvah and identifies as an atheist. Pru grew up Orthodox in Columbus, Ohio, and when she moves into Spence’s apartment, the first thing she does is kasher their kitchen.
But she gradually loses her zeal for Jewish ritual. Sarah, their daughter, attends Hebrew school but feels cheated out of a more formal Jewish education. Henkin writes: “She wished her parents had sent her to Jewish day school; she would have liked to reject what her mother rejected — to make a choice — but as it was, she wasn’t in a position to reject anything.” (Henkin, himself a product of Jewish day school, said his book should not be read as his own personal commentary on modern American Jewish life.)
“Morningside Heights” was supposed to be published in June 2020, but as the pandemic began to rage, Pantheon decided to postpone publication for a year. Some authors might have felt bitter or anxious about such a delay, fearing their hard work might never see the light of day. Henkin, who spent eight years on the novel and wrote about 3,000 pages in drafts, said he was grateful for it.
“I felt that having a book come out just when the pandemic was starting, and no one really knew what was what, would have been really hard,” he said. “And I think the book is positioned to do much better this time around.”