November 20, 2019

All-seeing mother watches family implode

Rare is the writer who does not look at one of his earlier works and see something he would have changed. Rarer still is the writer who actually makes that change. In “Prayers for the Living” (Fig Tree Books), novelist, memoirist and National Public Radio book critic Alan Cheuse revisits and revises his 1986 book, “The Grandmothers’ Club,” and the result is a tale that is even more affecting.

The story he tells, as Cheuse explains in his preface to “Prayers for the Living,” was inspired by an article in The New York Times about a young man who started out as a rabbi, made a fortune in crooked business and then took his own life by leaping from the 44th floor of a Manhattan office building. “A hundred and thirty-something thousands words later, all of them spoken or imagined by the main character’s mother, an elderly Jewish woman, with powers, it seems, far beyond her own original calling in life, and I had found my novel,”
Cheuse explains.

That woman is the memorable and inspiring Minnie Bloch, whose words are spoken to a circle of old women who gather to gossip about their children. This narrative device, too, is drawn from life. “Throughout my New Jersey childhood, I sat in the midst of kitchen and dining room conversations among my maternal great-grandmother, my grandmother, a great-aunt, and my mother,” Cheuse writes. “They told stories and added commentary, their inadvertent domestic version of the Talmudic tradition: biblical narrative with an interpretive edge.”

But Cheuse stands in more than one literary tradition, not only the boasting and keening of Jewish mothers, but also the sharp-eyed social chronicles of his fellow Jewish novelists such as the early Philip Roth, Mordecai Richler and Bernard Malamud. He sets out to elevate Minnie Bloch from the stereotype of the Jewish mother into a truth-teller of mythic stature.

“What a story, an old story, ach, and a bitter one, bitter, bitter, bitter,” recalls Minnie of a fateful incident on Yom Kippur. “He was thinking about his life, on this holy day, on the day when God’s moving finger or pen or whatever He writes with, maybe even now a typewriter or a computer, when He — or She or whatever God is these days — marks in the Book of Life or the Book of Death, he’s been thinking, wondering, pondering, sweating in his brain, milking his thoughts, should I go on with this farce — wait, all this will come to you — should I go on with it? Or should I get out?”

Manny is a man so beset with secrets and hurts that he seems to be in a death spiral, torn between his alcoholic wife and his Holocaust-haunted mistress, afflicted by the agonies of his daughter, unwittingly corrupted by his brother-in-law and watched over by his all-seeing mother. When he stumbles and falls from the bimah during the Yom Kippur service, an undiagnosed tumor is suspected, but we begin to see that he is already in free fall. Indeed, Cheuse suggests that something far more relentless than cancer is at work, not only in Manny’s head, but throughout the blighted history of the Bloch family.

Along the way, Minnie cannot resist telling her own story, harking all the way back to the moment when she fell in love with Manny’s father, Jacob, back in the old country: “Because if until then my life was just the story of a country girl, here it becomes poetry,” she exults. “A miracle takes place!” But it is also the beginning of the persistent streak of tragedy that afflicts the Bloch family, and Minnie produces a crude lipstick drawing to explain a fatal accident that ended Jacob’s life on the streets of New York years later. Cheuse reproduces the drawing on the printed page, charming and yet heartbreaking. A shard of broken glass Manny finds at the scene of the accident, which miraculously resembles a Star of David, becomes a sharp-edged talisman and a constant goad.

The street accident that took the life of Manny’s father, as it happens, sends out ripples that run through the lives of all of the characters and all the way to the end of the book. Minnie gently but firmly leads us through the horror and the heartbreak, the physical torment and the spiritual suffering. She patiently explains the oracles that she is privileged to receive, the signs and wonders that she beholds, and she provides an answer to even the most perplexing questions about the nature of good and evil.

Life is the Devil,” Minnie says. “It always has been. It always will be.”

Cheuse invites us to accompany Manny as he jumps from the high window at the end of his life. No rescue or redemption awaits him. But the author exercises his godly prerogative by letting Minnie speak, the all-hearing and all-seeing woman who is the real hero of the book. As the title suggests, a prayer can be discerned even in chaos and catastrophe, a prayer “for all of us poor creatures bound by stupid gravity to the mercies of a traveling sun.” It is a prayer so honest and so earnest, and it explains so much about what we have just finished reading, that the reader will be inspired to say, “Amen.”

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal.