On a wing and a prayer

Prayers for the LivingReview

Prayers for the Living by Alan Cheuse. Berkeley, Calif.: Fig Tree Books, 2015. 384 pp. $14.95.

When it comes to human behavior, does free will hold sway or are we all doomed to act in ways beyond our control? Prayers for the Living seems to be telling us that we are prisoners of our past, playthings of an unfeeling fate. (You will soon see why the more traditional believers among us may substitute the wrath of God for fate.)

The book was written by Alan Cheuse, a longtime book reviewer for NPR’s All Things Considered.

The novel’s tragic story – it’s based on a New York Times article Cheuse read in the 1970s about a multimillionaire businessman, an ordained rabbi, who committed suicide, he writes in the book’s preface – is told by family matriarch Minnie Bloch.

In essence, it is the story of her son Manny, who becomes a rabbi and later a successful businessman. His downfall follows the public revelation of a bribe he pays to a Guatemalan official.

But before that, the book chronicles the family’s misery and its steady disintegration. Maby, Manny’s wife, was reared by a bullying father and an alcoholic mother. As a child, she was raped by her brother (later, Manny’s business partner), becomes a drunk herself and spends long periods of time in a mental institution.

Their daughter Sarah (she calls herself Sadie), who was raised by her grandmother in the absence of her drunken mother and busy father, has an affair with a radical feminist whose goal is to destroy Manny.

Manny, although a successful rabbi, is driven by his own demons to succeed on a larger scale.
Everything that happened to Manny, and through him to his family – his choice of a wife and connection to his brother-in-law, his profession and ambitions beyond the rabbinate – can be traced to the accident that killed his father when he was a little boy.

His father sold fruit on the street and decided to take his cart out and do business on Shabbat. (Was God’s wrath for the desecration of the Sabbath behind the family’s miseries?) He took Manny with him. After the accident, the boy is put in a taxi with his future wife and in-laws, and shortly thereafter begins studying with a rabbi. Later, he chooses to study at the Reform seminary in Cincinnati, where his soon-to-become wife and family live.

Manny never gets over the loss of his father. “For him, for my Manny … it was him and the cart and his father, and the rest was rushing car and rearing horse and yowling siren, the crash of the truck and the smash of the glass,” Minnie says. “Can you imagine? Can you imagine what it was like to live this way? With the past creeping up on you always no matter how far you move into the present, let alone the future? Always the past leaning over his shoulder … no matter where he stood, no matter what, back and back and back and back to the crossroads of the crash and glass.”

The grandmother says she sometimes blames her son’s problems on his ambitions. But usually, she seems to believe fate is the culprit.

“… some great god of a bird or bird of a god … sucks up into the path of its flight all such puny notions as human will … .

“And this bird fixed its eye upon my son, my only son, my Manny, and he could have turned, he could have not turned, but no matter which way he turned it would have ended all the same.”
This otherwise fascinating account of a family in turmoil is marred by some of Minnie’s monologues, which seem to go on forever.

For example: “And even more than the parents of the children it is the grandmother who knows triple trouble, because she knows her troubles and the children’s and the children’s children’s, and thinking about it, talking about it gives me such a headache I’m telling you that if there is a God in heaven – and don’t be shocked that I say something like this, because today you hear a lot worse from smarter people than me – but if there is, He must have the biggest headache of all from knowing everything, backward, forward, past and future, but then if He’s so great I suppose He can make for Himself the biggest headache powder, no?”

Oy.

Sure, some 20th-century Jewish women, for whom English was not their mother tongue, actually spoke like that. But that doesn’t make it any easier to read.

OK, then, Prayers for the Living features elaborate character development and tells an interesting story, mostly well-written but sprinkled with some literary land mines.

So, read it with care.

Alan Cheuse will discuss Prayers for the Living at Politics & Prose in the District on March 21 at 6 p.m.  

Aaron Leibel’s novel, Generations: The Story of a Jewish Family, which spans 1,500 years and three continents, is available at amazon.com and in Kindle format.

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