Meiselman: The Lean Years
by Avner Landes
Tortoise Press, 416 pp.
Reviewed by Janice Weizman
We’re living through a moment when being a white male writer is considered, in some circles, a liability. For so long, (all of human history, so the argument goes) literature has been all about the concerns, viewpoints, quandaries, pleasures and challenges of being a white male, and it’s time that our literary attention be turned to people (ie. everyone else) whose voices have been, through no fault of their own, neglected. Jewish literature partakes in its own version of this issue, as several of the finest white male writers of the last century were Jews, their (almost exclusively male) characters and themes touched by issues of Jewish identity, history, and culture. All of this begs the question: what is one to do if one is a white, male Jewish writer? And also, what is there to say about this identity that has not yet been said?
Meiselman: The Lean Years, a debut novel by Avner Landes, offers a brave, funny, and reassuring response. Reassuring, because the most outstanding feature of the novel is the sharp resolution of its characterization, and the caliber of its writing. Yes, it’s about yet another insecure, self-absorbed, neurotic Jewish man. And yes, its narrow point of view and field of vision, are relayed through the eyes of its Jewish male protagonist. It is a prototype common enough to be a cliche, and therefore, once we’ve picked up the book, it’s up to Landes to charm us on the page into making us stay with it. Seen in this light, which is, for a work of literature, the only light that matters, Meiselman is wonderfully successful.
Its protagonist, however, is not. Meiselman is a 36 year old Events and Programs Coordinator at the New Niles Public Library, the institution’s #2, under his boss, and lifelong crush, Ethel Lewinson. He’s married to Deena, a newly religious convert, with whom he is trying to start a family. The narrative unfolds from deep inside Meiselman’s head, in a style that sometimes verges on stream of consciousness. It is here that Landes excels, as in Meisleman he has created a character that is fully-realized in its psychological precision. It is a voice which, more than depicting what Meisleman is seeing, it depicts Meisleman himself. Here he is, for example, describing his wife:
"Thirty years old, six years younger than the boyish Meiselman, and wrinkles are already developing off the corners of her mouth, a product of the way she sleeps, meatless lips
pressed together, deep concentration in this one area of life. A body half his size, the
build of a scrappy utility infielder, a player brought off the bench late in the game to
sacrifice a runner over, who then stays in the game as a defensive replacement. Every championship team needs one. “Quirky,” is how his mother once described her. “She
looks so quirky in those little jeans.”"
The book’s plot, which unfolds over a week in Meisleman’s life, centers around plans for a book event at the library with author Izzy Shenkenberg, a former schoolmate whom Meisleman recalls as an insufferable bully. When, due to health issues, Ethel asks Meiselman to step in as the interviewer, he is thrilled with the chance to put himself in the spotlight. Furthermore, disgusted by the way that Shenkenberg’s book paints a disparaging portrait of Rabbi J, a respected teacher in the Orthodox community, Meiselmen anticipates confronting him.
"It would be indecent to gloat over this development, Ethel tabbing him, Meiselman,
to replace her as the face of the library for her special night. The number two acting as the number one. She deserves a pause of concern, an acknowledgment of the
suffering that has set his elevation in motion. She is a woman who lives for the center
stage, so the pain must be severe…. All the pieces are falling into place for a refurbished Meiselman to challenge his nemesis Shenkenberg. Yes, nemesis. Now that he is
introducing the writer and moderating the debate portion of the event, reading the
book is crucial. Pause of concern over."
A large part of the enjoyment in reading this novel comes from Landes’s sensitivity to the minutia of everyday life, and its exploration of the way it can come to dominate our psyche, as in this scene: Meiselman and his wife are having Shabbat lunch at the home of friends. At Deena’s request, Molly, the hostess, recounts how she and her husband met.
"Molly and “a boyfriend at the time” had hosted a holiday party at her apartment in Lakeview, and Jeremy had attended as one of Molly’s colleague’s plus one. “My
fiancée,” Jeremy interjected. “And I think you had one as well.” This detail excited
the table, everyone except for Meiselman, who waited for a pause so he could ask for
more of the cabbage salad.
It was not a straight cabbage salad. It was not a slaw. The cabbage was red and the dish
had exotic greens and a creamy dressing. Who knew toasted sesame seeds delivered
such flavor? What Meiselman particularly liked about the salad was Molly’s gluttonous
touch of using strips of steak for garnish. Serving oneself as much beef as possible
without looking piggish was the challenge. Molly, not noticing Meiselman’s finger in
the air, pushed ahead with the story."
This is the sharply drawn interiority, however trifling, that makes up the book’s perspective, but it is significant in the way that it underlies Meiselman’s larger actions in the world. His stock-taking, large and small, is constant, and it fuels and motivates his every action and interaction. So successful is Landes in bringing us into Meiselman’s head, in making us care about his concerns, that the book’s conclusion lands a surprise that in retrospect, was obvious in coming.
Unlike much of the writing of those renown Jewish authors of the 20th century, Meiselman’s Jewishness in this book is not something that is in any way a source of tension in his identity, nor is it a point of conflict with non-Jewish society. His angst is rooted in his own hapless personality, and his greatest follies lie in his own private delusions. In this, most of us, Jewish or not, have more in common with Meiselman than we might like to admit.