The Book of Jeremiah
by Julie Zuckerman
Press 53, 190 pp.
One of the pleasures of fiction is the way many ways it allows for play with a familiar story’s structure, enabling us to regard and consider it from fresh, sometimes startling points of view. The Book of Jeremiah, a debut novel in stories by Julie Zuckerman, works this complex feat beautifully, offering an intriguing opportunity to contemplate a life not in a conventional, linear fashion, but as brief, meticulously crafted glimpses into key scenes that come together to form a multi-valenced composite.
Zuckerman’s protagonist is a first generation American Jew by the name of Jeremiah Gerstler, and the 13 stories here span the breadth of his basically unremarkable, rather comfortable, (some might use the term “privileged”), life. Jeremiah’s parents are warm and nurturing. His professional path as a political scientist, though not without its difficulties, is mostly smooth and satisfying. His wife, Molly, level-headed, lively, and sociable, and tolerant of his foibles, seems a perfect partner for him. His children, Hannah and Stuart, traverse typical paths of rebellion and reconciliation. And yet, with Zuckerman’s sharp, close resolutions, we are invited to observe how even in the most quotidian existence there are moments of intense drama and folly, pain and redemption.
Which is the most true, most authentic Jeremiah Gerstler? Is he the rascally nine year old playing a prank at a Passover Seder in 1936? Is he the ambitious young man turned down for a position in the secret service in 1952? Is he the baffled father, trying to resolve a family argument that spoils a birthday party in 1992? Or is he, ultimately, the elderly professor, contemplating his life’s achievements and disappointments in 2006? The answer is, of course, that he is all of them. And this truth, so obvious yet so strange to fathom , is what Zuckerman has artfully succeeded here in showing us.
In its non-chronological structure, the novel hands us a series of discrete pieces of a puzzle, each a moment in Jeremiah’s life that both stands on its own, and resonates with his character that we slowly come to know. By zeroing in on scenes from Jeremiah’s 80 odd years, we are invited into two simultaneous perspectives; that of the small story before us, and the wider, fuller view that places the story into the long arc of Jeremiah’s life. It is a perspective that offers up tantalizing questions: What personality traits stay with us over a lifetime, and what reveals itself as a passing stage? How do the things that happen to us in childhood come to mold our characters? How are life’s lessons learned? What shapes and drives a career? How does one learn, in small steps, to live with oneself?
And the novel offers yet another perspective: that of history. Though it is the story of Jeremiah’s life that is being showcased here, lurking in the backdrop is always the unrelenting presence of his times. Zuckerman deftly weaves the zeitgeist into her stories, using telling details as well as attitudes, mores, and values to bring us into the atmosphere of the period in question. Here, for example, is Jeremiah in 1972, chaperoning his daughter’s class on a field trip to Washington D.C. “Mr. Bruno, the young history teacher sitting a row ahead, wore his long hair tied back. Standards for teachers in the liberal, arty atmosphere of the Berkshires were a bit too relaxed for Jeremiah’s taste, and he found Bruno’s ponytail off-putting”.
And here he is in Paris, serving in the Signal core in 1945. “The café on Rue Madeleine was full of elegant French dames wearing printed crepe fabrics and feathered hats; other than a few midshipmen Jeremiah spotted sitting in the back, he and Mary were the only Americans. Despite the sticky heat of July and the short supply of sugar and real coffee, the mood was festive. Paris had been liberated nearly a year before, and with the end of the war, there was talk of France abandoning the ration system. Jeremiah felt no part of their joie de vivre.”
And here is his 19 year-old son, Stuart, contemplating his sister’s wedding in 1983 “The thought of tethering himself to one person for the rest of his life held no appeal for him. He felt nauseous contemplating it. College and life in the city had finally given Stuart his independence, and he was not interested in ending his partying any time soon. He could handle his parents for a weekend, a week at most, but after that, anything was liable to set things off. Thank goodness he’d brought a stash of weed home with him.”
In this way, events such as the Cold War, the Civil Rights movement, Vietnam, Watergate, and the Middle East come into play, not as a history lesson, but as a vivid presence in the characters’ lives.
For all of its structural virtuosity, the novel is not without flaws. While some of the stories, like “Transcendental”, “Awakening”, and “A Tough Day for L.B.J” , achieve sharp psychological accuracy, there were several instances where I wanted more – more depth, more probing of the issues raised, both on the level of the character’s psychology, and with regard to the relationship between the individual and society. This is a text that offers opportunities to consider larger questions about being Jewish in America in the 20th century. As a political scientist, Jeremiah is well positioned to engage with them, yet many of the stories tend to focus on small, recognizable moments, rather than explore larger truths.
On the whole, however, The Book of Jeremiah is a satisfying read, and after glimpsing these few brief but telling moments in Jeremiah’s life, readers are likely to come away with a new perspective on their own.
Reviewed by Janice Weizman