Some of my work on Updike was discussed on The Dish with Andrew Sullivan.
Some of my work on Ross Macdonald was discussed on Pretty Sinister Books.
Here is my interview with superstar music impresario Wendy Starland.
Here is my interview with Pulitzer Prize nominee Olympia Vernon.
Here is my interview with the editor of Best American Short Stories, Heidi Pitlor.
Here is my interview with acclaimed artist Emil Kazaz.
My musing on John D. Macdonald, Travis McGee, and the chicks was picked up on The Rap Sheet.

Golem Song by Marc Estrin

This is an article I wrote on the great novel by Marc Estrin, again for Patsy Moore's ezine.  In correspondence a couple of years later Estrin told me he's now a publisher, heading up Fomite Press with his wife.







Marc Estrin's Golem Song (2006)



                                    One of our most prominent living intellectuals, Professor Martha Nussbaum, makes an appearance
in this novel, as herself,  in a lunch time conversation with the main character, Alan Krieger, who disgusts her (as he does
almost everyone he comes in contact with).  I mention this because I myself once had a real life encounter with Nussbaum  in the mid 1990s, when I was one of several people  the Boston Review invited to write short replies to an article she'd written for them (you can read that here http://bostonreview.net/BR20.1/quinones.html )  I cracked up when I read the passage in Estrin:

                                                            "I was arguing that our primary loyalty should be to humanity as a whole,and not to some parochial national identity."
                                                           
                                                            "So what's wrong with that?"

                                                            "Oh, there were all kinds of objections - from silliness like, How can you be loyal to the world at large when there is no world state to be loyal to..."

because it sort of kind of describes the reply I wrote for the journal.  I guess Nussbaum heard it often.  This brought home the power of this novel to me in a direct, contact sport kind of way.  While recognizing that this won't happen for everyone,  I nevertheless feel this book can hit almost anyone who is concerned about the modern world with almost equal force. 


                                    This is an extremely learned novel that covers a whole host of important topics which I can't possibly get to in an article of this length, and  on seemingly every page Estrin makes free use of folklore, religion, myth, literature, songs, poems, puns, allusions, and pop culture.  He is also hilarious, the sense of humor often being wickedly irreverent. Readers have to be alert here.  I'm going to limit my remarks, after a short observation of the novel's postmodern character,  mainly to the  issue of  Kreiger's racism and hatred of African Americans, and then condensedly talk about the disintegration of Krieger's relationships with his girlfriends and family.  There is a third large issue - Jewishness, the state and condition of Jews in history and in the contemporary world scene, as well as the fate of Israel as a state in the modern Middle East, which I'll just mentionin passing  here and not discuss fully, but it's no less important for that.
                                    As noted, this tale has a thoroughly postmodern identity, as the appearance of a well known living person engaging in dialogue with a character illustrates, but there's more to it than just that.  Estrin employs the device of "Paper Trails", which are documents and letters that provide information about Krieger and provide commentary on the events occurring within the world of the fiction;  he also uses chapter headings that sort of tease us by giving a litttle information about what the chapter is about (for example Krieger's home life is discussed in " Krieger Domesticus"); and finally there are seemingly endless references - some direct, some allusory - to classic works of literature from the "canon", if I may use that word.  By way of example - the novel begins with a nod to Joyce:" Stately?  No.  Ahh, but plump?  Decidely."


                                    So who is Alan Krieger?  He's an obese, chain smoking, foul mouthed, racist nurse in the ER of a large and busy New York hospital.  He lives with his mother and his pet snake Shlong in an apartment in the Bronx,  is darting back and forth between between two girlfriends, and despises his brother Walter and his family (who live in Vermont) mainly due to disagremeents over the situation in the Middle East and the state of Israeli politics.  It's hard to say exactly when it happens, but at some point Krieger's mind starts to tip sideways and he begins to fancy himself a new messiah for the Jews of today.  He also becomes fascinated with the Biblical concept of the Golem; thus the novel's title.  Here is an excerpt from the Wikipedia entry on golem:
                                   
The word golem is used in the Bible to refer to an embryonic or incomplete substance: Psalm 139:16 uses the word "gal'mi", meaning "my unshaped form" (in Hebrew, words are derived by adding vowels to triconsonantal roots, here, g-l-m). The Mishnah uses the term for an uncultivated person ("Ten characteristics are in a learned person, and ten in an uncultivated one", Pirkei Avoth 5:7). Similarly, golems are often used today in metaphor either as brainless lunks or as entities serving man under controlled conditions but hostile to him in others. Similarly, it is a Yiddish slang insult for someone who is clumsy or slow

                                    Some aspects of Estrin's work are extremely confrontational and may make a lot of readers uncomfortable.  Krieger slowly develops into a Kahane-like figure, a warrior Jew who advocates violence as a means of achieving socio-political goals and satisfactions.  In an interesting review of the book for Pop Matters Jason B. Jones points out that some readers, not knowing much about Estrin, may tend to assume that Krieger is just a thinly disguised version of the author himself, representing the author's own viewpoints and beliefs when in fact it seems that exactly the opposite is the case.  (Jones' review is also highly perceptive in talking about binary concepts that exist in the novel, something I'm not at all sure I would have picked up on).
                                     I'd like to briefly comment on the strategy of references Estrin uses. He uses it to get all his fundamental points across to us, but in particular to point up just how isolated and lonely Krieger is.  The vastness of his learning is an indication - we wonder if this guy ever does anything but read books.  His erudite temperament and lifestyle function as a wedge between himself and less scholarly folk (which includes almost everybody) but, more, it is here to show us how  quickly  an educated and  knowledgeable person can  become  a monster.  Simply as a fun exercise, readers might want to glance at the following list  of six things and determine how much they know about each item  without doing a Google; this is just a smattering of some of the unexplained allusions Krieger makes in the course of the story:

                                    - Toshiro Mifune
                                    - the Bishop of Hippo
                                    - Count Chocula
                                    - the Big Ham
                                    - Something to be desired
                                    - H.P. Lovecraft

When pellets of allusion such as these and many others are slipped into dialogue and interior monologue reading becomes both challenging and enjoyable.  It's an ordinary device done extraodinarily well.  Let's explore this just a bit further.


                                    The question of what it means to be a Jew today, in modernity, has of course been investigated at length in  American fiction by three great twentieth century writers - Bellow, Malamud, and Roth;  Jewish theology and philosophy in the twentieth century had plenty of heavyweights such as Buber and  Fackenheim.  Estrin I think has clearly learned from all three of the novelists, not only thematically but stylistically as well. I mention this here only because I believe it shows that the author understands, and acknowledges,  some literary heritage and background and I feel that these small accedences are more subtle, more masked, than the numerous outright references he makes to other writers and musicians (Estrin  himself plays the cello).  The opening chapter of Golem Song nods to these three predecessors in three slyly differing ways.  In the staff room of the hospital Krieger finds a brownie, half eaten, left for dead, and he debates the best way to eat the remains of it without being seen.  This is strongly evocative of one of the opening scenes of Bellow's Herzog, where Moses Herzog leaves remains of his toast behind for the mice in his kitchen.  In quick order Krieger accidentally knocks a coffee cup off the table and it flies through the air and lands, bottom down, perfectly on the carpet with the coffee quivering inside, not a drop spilled.  This, again, recalls the kind of other worldly magic that the characters in Malamud stories such as The Magic Barrel or The First Seven Years experience; and finally the outrageous humor that Estrin employs in every chapter is channeling Roth, especially the earlier novels such as Portnoy's Complaint and The Great American Novel (the latter begins with a liitle nod to Moby Dick in the exact manner that Golem Song nods to Joyce).
                                    In Krieger's twisted mind the principal enemies of the Jews are African-Americans, specifically the Nation of Islam.  Now, there is all manner of lunacy and zaniness in New York  on the subject of Jews vs. Blacks, and in the 90s specifically (the novel is set in 1999) we had the Crown Heights Riots, Professor Leonard Jefferies, and the aforementioned Kahane and his followers.  Estrin sets up the later scenes of confrontation and dementia from the get go.  Much of significance transpires between Krieger and African-Americans.  In the first chapter he encounters a Mr. Brown who thinks he's Jesus in the hospital chapel.  In the second chapter he has nasty racial and sexual thoughts about a black woman in the subway; then the door to the subway car opens and "in swaggered two youths of color, equipped with acoustic accoutrments." who proceed to smoke in the subway even though there are signs everywhere announcing this is not allowed.  Later Krieger produces a rap lyric for one of his girlfriends, Ursula (a psychiatrist and a shiksa):

                                                            How you spell girl, girl with a G?
                                                            Well, you know I spell girl, girl, with a B!
                                                            Cause I know what the *@!$ you fo
                                                            Ain't no mischance you called a ho
                                                            Hey, a brother like me, he need only one thing
                                                            And that thing a target for mah .44 ding-a-ling!
                                                            Ain't my vernacular simply spectacular?
                                                            I'm a killa. a Godzilla, that's the ganze megillah...

                                    Krieger really starts to fall apart when it's revealed that Ursula has a black lover who's converted to Judaism.  Shortly after that he's attacked in the parking lot of St. Vincent's and of course assumes it's a black assailant without having any proof. He gets passed over for a promotion which goes to a black female colleague. Later, when a black patient named Eddie who has been stabbed and assaulted a policeman is brought into the ER, Kreiger threatens to emasculate him in a "joking" manner.  Perhaps what pushes his racism totally over the edge are some of the speeches he hears at a Nation of Islam rally at the Statue of Liberty:

                                                            "is none other than the black man.  The black man is the first and the last,the maker and the owner of the universe.  Allah is proving to us that the white race is not, and never will be, the Chosen People of God.  They are the
Chosen People of their father Yacub, the devil."
 
  And:

                                                             "Jewish victimization is part of a great hoax that explains how Jews have come to influence Western civilization out of all proportion to their  small numbers. Jews are
ot victims: they are victimizers.  They were the main people responsible for the genocide of the Native Americans.  They were one of the main slaveholders of our people before - and after - the Civil War."
                                   
And so Estrin presents us with all the usual justifications an imbalanced person will utilize in order to palliate their racism, culminating in the Rambo-like reaction to the racism and anti-Semitism of the Nation of Islam.  I'll quote just a couple of Krieger's rants here:
                                                            Violence is as Jewish as potato latkes, Calvin.  This world ain't Fiddler on the Roof.That was bad enough.  But after the Shoah show, non-violence doesn't cut it anymore.For Never-Again-ists, we need force and power, and not just brain power.


                                                            I have in mind blacks chanting, "More lampshades!" at a Cannibal demo in Crown Heights.  I have in mind my little Jewish nephew singing gangsta rap.  Makes
marrying a non-Jew seem like yeshiva.

                                                           

                                    However, the imagined tormentors of the Jewish People are not the only ones Krieger has serious issues with.  As we noted above, he alienates his girlfriends and family thoroughly.  He ruins a seder at the home of his girlfriend, Debbie Goldenbaum, shocking the guests with his contemptuous ridicule of their traditions and beliefs.  He fights with his brother over their conflicting views of Israel (the brother, Walter, is a pacifist who is appalled by the behavior of the Israeli military - as he puts it, the policy of  ' a thousand eyes for an eye'  - and who takes Krieger's 'JDL swagger and machismo' deeply to task).  The other girlfriend is a German psychiatrist, Ursula, who elects to dump Krieger for her long lost African-American Jewish friend Calvin, whom she happens to bump into in a restaurant where she and Krieger are having dinner (another miracle coincidence!)  And then  even his mother can't stand him anymoe and goes to live with her other son and his family in Vermont.  We learn of this from one of the Paper Trails with the subtitle of "First Epistle of Ma to the Floridians."

                                    Readers wishing to explore further should consult the Jones review mentioned earlier, as well as one by Gordon Hauptfleisch on blogcritics.org; there is also a long interview with the author at www.identitytheory.com  that gives quite a bit of exposition into Estrin's planning for the book.  The book, Golem Song, is fascinating and disturbing, and it may be the only hilarious novel about the possibility of a race war that you ever read.


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