Book review: Golem Song by Marc Estrin
How do people become fanatics, capable of killing strangers on the strength of a belief? How do words and ideas give birth to murder? With the death toll from suicide bombings mounting daily in the Middle East, we can't afford not to ask these questions. But the third novel from Burlington's Marc Estrin reminds us that ideological violence is no stranger to our own shores. Set on the eve of the new millennium, Golem Song confronts an older source of friction and fear in American urban culture: the tension between African-Americans and Jews.
The novel's protagonist, Alan Krieger, R.N., is an unlikely warrior of any faith. He's a pudgy, thirtysomething, two-pack-a-day smoker with a mind stuffed full of classic literature and a formidable talent for oratory and wordplay. Alan resides in the Bronx with his mom and pet snake, works in a busy emergency room, and divides his free time between his two brainy girlfriends: a Jewish social worker and a German shiksa psychiatrist. That's not enough for this man of appetites, who still scans personal ads and aspires to the romantic conquest of real-life philosopher Martha Nussbaum.
That's the comic side of Alan Krieger: Like Shakespeare's Falstaff, he's all about excess. But his anger is larger than life, too. In the first chapter, we get a sense of the power Alan can wield with words alone. When a strapping psychiatric patient goes berserk in the ER, insisting he's the son of God, Alan subdues him by telling the story of Shabbatai Z'vi, a 17th-century would-be messiah whose delusions brought him to grief.
It's not always easy for Alan to absorb his own wisdom - that man and God aren't one. He's angered by the things he experiences every day: the teenagers who blast rap music on the subway, the gang members who come to the ER boasting of brutal killings, the anti-Semitic orators of the Nation of Islam. Soon he's taking revenge in small ways - like telling an unruly black patient the doctors are going to castrate him - that get him in trouble with his superiors. Alan's friends are shocked by his racist comments, but he insists, "I'm not racist; I'm a realist."
Though he calls himself a Buddhist, Alan's sense of himself is shaped by Judaism - and, perhaps even more deeply, by the long history of anti-Semitic violence in Western culture. He's convinced that the only way to make it stop, whether in the Bronx or on the West Bank, is for Jews to give tit for tat. "I'm sick and tired of Jewish patheticness," he proclaims. "Exemplary victims, weak, passive, cowardly, timid and downtrodden. . . . [we need] the norm of a new kind of Jew, no more bent-over rabbis but patriotic, bronzed warriors, kicking ass and transvaluating values."
On the anniversary of Kristallnacht - the massive 1938 Nazi pogrom - Alan's obsessions come together. Like 16th-century Rabbi Loew, who created a giant golem from clay to protect the Jews of Prague, he will fight back. And, like the golem after the rabbi forgot to deactivate it on the Sabbath, Alan won't make distinctions between the innocent and the guilty.
This topic could lend itself easily to sensationalism. But Estrin, who won national acclaim for his first novel, Insect Dreams, is no sensationalist: He's a philosopher and a writer steeped in the modernist - and postmodernist - traditions. Like Alan's mind, the novel teems with allusions to classic music and literature, from the Old Testament to Captain Marvel comics. For readers, this sets the comprehension bar pretty high. To understand the novel, it helps to know that the fragments passing through Alan's mind in the first chapter are from Hamlet, or that "kicking ass and transvaluating values" is a reference to Nietzsche's concept of the superman.
Formally, too, the novel is challenging - at least until you get used to the fact that its narrator is and isn't Alan Krieger. Though Golem Song appears to be written from an omniscient third-person perspective, Estrin slips in and out of Alan's interior monologue, giving the novel a James Joycean feel. Many chapters are composed almost entirely of dialogue, with few he-said she-said tags to remind the reader who's speaking.
Luckily, Estrin writes vigorous, colloquial dialogue, the kind that's even better when you read it aloud. The chapter in which Alan tells his mother the Oedipus story - on Mother's Day, of course - is a small comic masterpiece. In another beautifully crafted passage, Alan witnesses an Independence Day rally by the Nation of Islam and a competing White Power demonstration. Here humor gives way to chilling irony: For all their disagreements, both groups blame their problems on the Jews.
In scenes like this, it's hard not to see the source of Alan's rage. Estrin likes to approach difficult issues without reducing their complexity. Perhaps that's why he's partial to the dialogue, a form pioneered by Socrates for the discussion of questions with no easy answers.
In this refusal to simplify the difficult, Golem Song is reminiscent of a classic American novel of race conflict: Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man. (Both authors acknowledge the influence of Dostoevsky's Notes from the Underground, with its socially marginal, devil's-advocate protagonist.) Like Ellison's nameless African- American narrator, Alan Krieger has revelatory interracial encounters with random people he meets on the streets of New York. Both characters feel the weight of a long history of ethnic oppression; both are inexorably pushed toward violence.
Golem Song and Invisible Man diverge radically at their dénouements. By the end of his story, Ellison's narrator knows that the American "melting pot" is more like a seething stew. But he also has an epiphany: Diversity, in all its "concrete, ornery, vile and sublimely wonderful" messiness, is what America is about. Ellison writes that those who preach ethnic or ideological cleansing, whatever their race or creed, are "making the old eagle rock dangerously."
For all his brilliance, Alan Krieger is ultimately one of those people. It's hard not to wish that Estrin had given his character a moment of insight like Ellison's - or given us a character with a countervailing perspective who was prominent enough in the narrative to stand up to Alan. It's frustrating, sometimes almost unbearable, to be stuck inside the mind of a man who's talking himself into madness.
But to deny the realities to which he's reacting would be worse. "Do the country-club Jews understand this?" Alan asks about his racism, pointing out that wealth will buy a lot of tolerance - and complacency. Real pluralism means working out conflicts that sometimes seem intractable. Estrin uses Alan's downfall to illuminate this truth: When everyone claims to be the "chosen people," no one has a right to exist.
From Golem Song:
Alan Krieger had nothing wrong with his liver, nor was he likely to, since he didn't drink or do injectables. Unattractive? Beauty must be in the eye of the beholder, for Alan had acquired not one but two lady friends - though overweight is not exactly chic.
As Alan has just trod down the steps and through the turnstile, one's attention turns, then, to "underground." Podpolia, in Russian, refers not to subways but to the crawl space under the floor of a house, and Dostoevsky has evoked in this little masterpiece an irate, claustrophobic consciousness in strained polemical battle with some imagined enemy, the condition, he thought, of modern man.
Unlike Dostoevsky's antihero, Alan Krieger, RN, was neither narrow-minded nor without character. Nevertheless, there was something podpolye-ish in his heart as he stood waiting to be transported.
Ecstatic discharge from the nether regions of the downtown express as it disappeared into darkness. Old Sparky, Alan thought, the festival of lights come round for Passover. The uptown platform - his - was filling up with huddled masses yearning to go home and watch TV.
What a card, old God. Execute all those lil Egyptian firstborns? For I will go through the land of Egypt in that night, I and not an intermediary - the Big Ham. He could have had Jews avenge themselves. But no. No Jewish Fists allowed. Why? Afraid of His People punching themselves in the face? Punching Him in the Face? He kept everyone in the dark that night, without responsibility or blame for all those little corpses.