By Jami Attenberg
273 pages. $24.99 (available Oct. 23)
By Stefan Fleischer
NEWS BOOK REVIEWER
When books are sent out for review, they’re typically supplied with publicity giving quick biographical information on the author and cherry-picked excerpts of praise from early reviewers, thereby urging the present reader to go and do likewise. One usually knows what to do with them: pay them no mind.
Jami Attenberg’s “The Middlesteins" is an exception.
I paid attention because the leading blurb on the promotion sheet is from Jonathan Franzen, an author famously known for his impatience with much of contemporary writing. So it’s surprising that he has this to say about the novel: “ ‘The Middlesteins’ had me from its very first pages, but it wasn’t until the final pages that I fully appreciated the range of Attenberg’s sympathy and the artistry of her storytelling.”
Franzen is describing the novel reader’s equivalent of “You had me at Hello.” Me too. How then does Attenberg accomplish this remarkable feat? The familiar milieu, Jewish-American, is rendered in a distinctive, confident voice in full command of the vernacular of that particular social class.
This not very long novel relies on quick, precise strokes: chapters are vignettes taking us from the hot tenements of post WWII to the air-conditioned suburbs of Chicago’s present-day moderately prosperous North Side. Along the way we come to know three generations of Middlesteins: Edie (nee Herzen) and the central figure of the book, married to Richard Middlestein, sole proprietor of a total of three ultimately failing pharmacies, their children Benny and Robin, and Benny’s twins, Josh and Emily.
“The Middlesteins” opens on the stairwell of a five story walk-up with “little Edie Herzen, age five: not so little” first begging, then whining, then bawling for her exhausted mother to carry her up the rest of the way to their flat. That’s Edie with all her library books (which she picked out herself) and her mother with two bags of groceries full to bursting with cans of tomatoes and melting ice cream. It’s August, shortly after the end of WWII, in Chicago. It’s very hot on the stairwell. Edie throws a tantrum so that “neighbors opened their doors and stuck their heads into the hallway, then closed them when they saw it was just that fat child from 6D, being a kid, crying like they do.”
But it’s more than that. It’s an all-out mother-daughter battle, the first of many in the book, that feels to both participants as a matter of life and death to be resolved finally, in this instance, and a number of others, by the offer of food: here a hunk of “fresh rye bread, baked not an hour before at Schiller’s down on Fifty-third Street.” Edie stops crying and mother schleps child and library books and the two grocery bags up the stairs the rest of the way. As she’s carried chomping on her hunk of rye bread, Edie dreams of salty liverwurst that would go so well between slices of that fresh bread. Edie has sophisticated taste for a 5 year old as well as a certain manipulative, mean streak. She gets what she wants: carry me –
The opening chapter is entitled “Edie, 62 Pounds,” already heavy at age 5. In succeeding, alternating chapter titles we monitor Edie’s weight: (“Edie, 202 Pounds” …. “Edie, 160 Pounds”… “Edie, 241 Pounds” … etc.) Her weight yo-yos up and down but the trend is inexorably, inevitably up. By following the timeline of Edie’s weight, we always know exactly where we are and we carry with us the foreboding sense of knowing how all this will end. It will end badly, with tears and mourning.
We know right from the beginning that Edie is killing herself with food. She has advanced diabetes and all sorts of heart troubles, and she continues to eat compulsively. But Edie nevertheless remains the complex hero of her own life, because she refuses to regard herself as life’s victim and we, like the members of her family, end up caring about her deeply. Edie has a sharp mind and a smart mouth, useful for much more than stuffing food. Edie’s timeline determines the lives, fortunes and (mostly) misfortunes of this seemingly solid Midwestern, middle-class Jewish-American family. It establishes a continuing melancholic atmosphere raised to a level of existential pessimism. Ironically, “The Middlesteins" is at the same time full of humor, mostly satiric, some of it much darker.
A chapter near the end of the novel gives an account of Josh and Emily’s bnai mitzvah (plural of bar mitzvah, the two are twins after all), the Jewish ritual inauguration into adult life and responsibility, performed when the child turns 13. 2,500 years ago, such a rite of passage meant the boy would be allowed the responsibility of caring for flocks of sheep in the Judean hills. Clucked over, cosseted, while at the same time always pressured to perform, whether for a silly dance contest or for school grades, these Middlestein kids, Josh and Emily, might perhaps be capable enough to place their own dinners in a microwave, but not much more. Their mother is there to micromanage anything more important.
The bar mitzvah has been turned into a coed ritual (the bat mitzvah for girls, an innovation of American Reformed Judaism in the 1920s and rarely practiced elsewhere) and has been diminished of religious meaning and replaced by a social ritual of elaborate, conspicuous consumption of food and drink at a rented ballroom in the “newish” Hilton.
The repeated equation, food equals love, love equals food, first stated by Edie’s mother, is something of a head fake on Attenberg’s part. In the dramatic action of the novel, in what actually happens as opposed to what is said, food provokes disgust and guilt as often as feelings of love. Although there’s nothing quite as rowdy as Alexander Portnoy’s brief love affair with the piece of raw liver he’s bringing home for the family dinner, there are more than a few moments of such extravagant, outlaw excess that we understand that the central theme of the book is Edie’s long, passionate, out-of-control and ultimately tragic love affair with food.
Novels about contemporary American-Jewish experience have become increasingly scarce since the great days of Saul Bellow (“The Adventures of Augie March," 1953), Bernard Malamud (“The Assistant” — I think it’s his best work, 1957), and slightly more recently Philip Roth (“Portnoy’s Complaint," 1969). Jami Attenberg recalls that tradition by her utter confidence that she has something worth telling to a wide audience of Americans, not just the ready-made, however large, sectarian audience of Jews and type 2 diabetics and the overweight.
In the final pages 13-year-old Emily weeps disconsolately at Edie’s funeral. But Attenberg in a flash-forward has already projected a future for Emily as escaping the constricting Jewish provincialisms of her background. She sees Emily as a film student (presumably at NYU) enjoying a rooftop party in Brooklyn: people are drinking, smoking, flirting. Off in a corner a young, bearded man plays cover tunes on an accordion “and all the girls … want to sleep with him, except for the girls who want to sleep with the other girls.” Emily, with her roommate from Barcelona, and all the others are knocked out as they gaze across the river at the Manhattan lights. Here Emily remembers a story her aunt Robin tells of having fled Brooklyn. Fresh out of college, Robin was sharing a flat in Brooklyn with three other Midwestern Jewish girls: Jennifer, and Julie and Jordan (a little satirical playing with stereotypical names). They came to Teach for America and they hung on for a while. But as soon as they discovered their mattresses were infested with bedbugs these nice Jewish girls burned their mattresses in the alley and fled to the comfort and safety of their Midwestern homes, vowing never to come back. Recalling this, Emily thinks: “She must have gone to the wrong Brooklyn. Because I never want to go home again.” Emily is happy to trade in provincialism for cosmopolitanism. Attenberg’s stance is that this is a good deal.
I hope this novel will find the big audience it deserves, because it’s clear-eyed funny and truthful and deeply moving, especially in the killer-punch of its ending. I hope for the sake of Attenberg’s bank account that Hollywood options the novel for lots of money. I hope further that the movie won’t get made. Hollywood (casting Gwyneth Paltrow in a fat suit yet again? It worked so well the first time. See “Shallow Hal”) would likely muck up all that’s refined and economical and beautifully crafted about “The Middlesteins.”
Stefan Fleischer taught in the English Department at the University at Buffalo for 39 years. He now resides in Houston.