Friday, November 24, 2006

Book Review: Golem Song by Marc Estrin

“…One Saturday night, when he was a differently-abled teenager, Oedipus and his buddies were tooling around in the limo, and they decided to take in an oracle. So up to Delphi and guess what?”

You can most assuredly guess that you will never hear a more hilarious account of Oedipus Rex than you will encounter in Marc Estrin’s trenchantly voltaic third novel, Golem Song. But it may also be the most disconcerting, too, as the main character — with unthinking Freudian relish in the embellishment — tells the story to his mother. On Mother’s Day. With a Snoopy card.

But Alan Krieger is not your standard-issue 35-year old emergency-room nurse with a brilliant, non-stop mind and mighty mouth. For one thing, he still lives with oedipal ma in a sixth-floor New York apartment that, “floor-to-ceilinged” with scholarly tomes, ominously reminds him — and us — of the Texas Book Depository. Often endearing but just as often infuriating, tossing off bonmots and potshots cavalierly quickly, Alan is more than one of those people you either love or hate effortlessly and uncritically. Once more, with intensity: You love to hate him or hate to love him; friends and family seem to enjoy pursuing that extra effort it takes to submit to the voodoo-that-you-do, or to push in more pins.

But with Estrin’s character-driven comic touch, you will come for the foibles but stay for the foils in this 1999-set novel. Alan’s self-sabotaging and manic antics may undermine him but it is the hell of other people — adherents and adversaries alike — that helps define him, especially and increasingly in the degree with which they accede to his strong stance on Jewish theology and its legacy.

“I’m sick to death of Jewish patheticness,” he rails. “Exemplary victims, weak, passive, cowardly, timid and downtrodden, limp Jewish rags soaked in repulsive silent suffering…” It’s a mindset Alan uses in his lifelong standoff with his pacifist brother over the issue of Israel, and an outlook that buttresses his stance against converts to Judaism he encounters, including a black acquaintance: “What, you haven’t suffered enough?”

Despite Alan’s neurotic edges and perceived extremism, though, he's affable with his ER co-workers of the rank and file stripe, and patient to a point with the patients. He fancies he has the pick of two girlfriends, one an out-of-his-league psychiatrist and the other of the levelheaded soulmate variety, understanding and comforting. Though she may have her limits, too.

Further complications testing Alan's people-person skills crop up during a night when a senseless city-wide gang war turns the ER into a “stitch-em-up factory,” and a garrulous Farrakhan-inflamed Anti-Semite GOMER (“Get Out of My Emergency Room” regular) pokes and prods Alan to the point where contention is construed as racism - but only on Alan's part. Ultimately and however arguably justified, Alan’s better judgments and attempts at poetic but un-PC justice — the denigration of affirmative action in confrontaion with his African-American supervisor doesn‘t help — leads to the loss of his job.

A latent fanaticism fanned also signals the advent of a new and unstable phase, tinged with tension and dark humor, that comes as Alan deludes himself into believing he’s been “chosen” to deliver America from Anti-Semitism. Indeed, as one character says, he’s become enslaved “to your own rhetoric, to the flight of your ideas.”

If Alan has become a Frankenstein of sorts, it’s all the more a Faustian connection rooted in the folktale of the Golem, the animated being of clay that defended the Jews in 16th Century Prague. It’s a theme that pops-up repeatedly in Estrin’s ever-arresting novel; Alan remembers reading as a child about this “cross between the Jolly Green Giant and the Pillsbury Doughboy.” His mother used to call him a golem, too (perhaps just a twisted term of oedipal endearment, though).

But now, as Alan prepares for a retaliatory plan of cultural attack, it is more befitting to remember that in Hebrew, the word golem equates to “shapeless matter.” “Something,” Alan is told, “that has potential but is not yet formed, not yet there.”

Nothing ratchets up the riveting anticipation and the anything-can-happen possibilities more than putting them under the command — or utter lack of control — of a man who is himself still an unfinished works-in-progress.

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