Prayers for the Living, by Alan Cheuse. Foreword by Tova Mirvis. Fig Tree Books. 380 pages. Trade paperback $15.95.
A major literary achievement, Alan Cheuse’s magnificent novel takes us through three generations of a Jewish American family, revealing an odd mix of dysfunction and accomplishment, belonging and estrangement, sacrifice and betrayal. Minnie Bloch’s story, told from the perspective of her identities as immigrant and grandmother, reaches us through intermediary listeners, visitors whose near silence tempts us to ask questions. However, if we – the ghostly eavesdroppers – can be patient, they will all be answered. Though she protests otherwise, Minnie has all the answers. Though her eyesight is failing, her insight rarely falters.
The impact of the novel comes from two centers of interest: Minnie’s arcing, arching voice and her son Manny’s careers. The voice, like the spirited personality behind it, is inexhaustible. In her stream of revelations showered upon Mrs. Pinsker and a few other visitors, she elaborates what others would most likely keep secret about unfortunate familial matters. There is a great need in Minnie to reveal all: the successes of course, but why the frailties and failures?
There is no stopping her soaring cry. When Mrs. Pinsker remarks that she too has a life story to tell, Minnie replies: “I’d love to hear, Mrs. Pinsker, but not now. Now I’m remembering my own. Oi, I remember so hard.” And indeed, she does.
The texture of Minnie’s life and that of her family is built up in arcs of repetition. Crucial memories and images, key words and phrases, are repeated over and over again, gaining significance and force. Layer upon layer, Minnie’s memories grow and expand; themes and variations compound and resound. The voice becomes hypnotic and embracing, releasing as it unfolds the voices of her late husband Jacob, of Manny and his wife Maby, of Maby’s abusive brother Mord, of the rebellious granddaughter who has renamed herself Sadie, and of many others in the sweep of her long life.
All is hung on the identical trademark black suits of Manny, all is illuminated by Manny’s white mane, which bursts upon his head when he is very young, in the aftermath of Jacob’s accidental death. If Jacob is the father, an echo of his namesake who sired the Israelite clan, then Manny – Emanuel – is the assurance that, at least for the rabbinic part of Manny’s adult life, God is with us.
Young Manny studies at the Reform seminary in Cincinnati and becomes a successful pulpit rabbi in New York. His is a master of the ordinary things expected of him – the routines of educating, inspiring, influencing committee meetings, and fundraising. His most successful religious service is one in which he needs to present a sermon on the concentration camps. After much agonizing and writer’s block, he offers as his sermon twenty minutes of absolute silence. It’s the high point of his pulpit career. His congregants love it. There are low points too, including one in which he takes a literal and figurative fall.
Gradually, another calling overtakes Manny. That of entrepreneur, investor, and man of business. One business is added to another, and then another: shipping, warehousing, and ultimately major agricultural interests in Central America. Once he redefines himself as a businessman and former rabbi, Manny readily discards the life of the synagogue and traditional observance. How does he make this transition so effortlessly? How deep did it ever run?
The story of Manny enfolded in Minnie’s linked narratives is also the story of his ill-fated marriage to Maby (a family nickname), a beautiful woman overwhelmed by insecurity and alcoholism. She spends way too much of her life in a comfortable rehab center, but when she ventures out in the world – at one point attempting to become a writer – she makes poor choices that lead to new bouts of depression.
Along the way, Manny is drawn to another woman, Florette, a Holocaust survivor.
Both Maby and Manny are weak parents whose emotional absence predicts Sadie’s rebellious behavior. Is she a victim by nature or nurture? Sadie’s traumatic gang rape by college boys is an almost incredible echo of Maby’s rape by her older brother Mord (who later ends up being Manny’s business partner). Maby’s idealization of a self-seeking writing guru almost predicts Sadie’s infatuation with her super-liberated and exploitative female art teacher.
Looking for encouraging authority figures, mother and daughter succumb to false gods.
We must remember, of course, that these stories and the repeated patterns and voices they contain all go back to Minnie’s memory and her conscious or unconscious mission. These coincidences are no more unlikely than the repeated narrative patterns in the Jewish Bible: older brothers being replaced by younger, parental favoritism warping sibling relationships, and former slaves repeatedly longing for the comfort of their predictable slave lives.
What hath Cheuse wrought? A one-woman show with one character playing many parts? A prose epic of the American Dream corrupted by some kind of insidious moral disease? A portrait of the archetypal Jewish grandmother? Prayers for the Living reminds me of Frank Norris’s McTeague, Abraham Cahan’s The Rise of David Levinsky (especially the portrait of the hero’s mother and the irony of the title), Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, Allan Ginsberg’s “Kaddish” (don’t ask me why), and Henry Roth’s Call It Sleep.
It also reminds me of Molly Goldberg, Gertrude Berg’s iconic character who embodied the Jewish-American quest for and realization of upward mobility. Not only the “yoo-hoo,” but also the worship of family.
I expect a long life for this book, though not necessarily an explosion to the top of the best seller lists. It is made of sturdy stuff, esthetically and imaginatively. It requires a patient reader, and it pours abundant riches on such a reader. It may very well take its place among the classic novels of the Jewish American experience.
This review appears in the June 2015 issues of Federation Star (Jewish Federation of Collier County), L’Chayim (Jewish Federation of Lee and Charlotte Counties), and The Jewish News (Jewish Federation of Sarasota/Manatee).