"Kalooki Nights" by Howard Jacobson; Simon & Schuster; 450 pages; $26.
Comparisons in this case being inevitable, let's get them out of the way: Yes, there are striking similarities between Jacobson's "Kalooki Nights" and Philip Roth's "Portnoy's Complaint" of 40 (!) years ago. Narration by sensitive, artistic Jewish boy growing up in the 1950s who, as an adult, finds himself attracted to non-Jewish women. The comedy is broad, the implications deep ....
But really, that's about as far as it's fair to take it. "Kalooki Nights" is set in Manchester, England, and although shot through with sexual themes and brandishing, if you will, the occasional hilarious set piece, it is ultimately a more serious and disturbing novel. Jacobson managed to infuse his ethos with low-level but omnipresent anti-Semitism, which in England exists as a kind of background radiation and here informs nearly every scene, every conversation, every word.
Max Glickman is a semi-failed cartoonist looking back at his life, mostly his growing up in Crumpsall, a barely middle-class Jewish neighborhood in Manchester. His father, a promising boxer until nosebleeds drove him from the ring, ekes out a living - how, exactly, isn't clear - and expends most of his energy with his communist/atheist pals, railing against capitalism and the Jewish religion (he's a devout atheist), in no particular order. Max's mother devotes her days to who-knows-what and her evenings to Kalooki, "a version of rummy much favoured by Jews ... on account (though not all Jews would agree) of its innate argumentativeness."
But the novel turns on Max's friendship, of a sort, with an odd neighbor boy: Manny Washinsky, the younger son of a sad, Old-Worldish Orthodox family across the street. It is with Manny that Max begins the project that will dominate his life: a graphic novel detailing the history of the Jewish people, eventually published (and largely ignored), called "Five Thousand Years of Bitterness."
Manny, bright but twisted, frail, introspective and a born loser, eventually commits a bewildering act of unspeakable horror against his family. Many years later, Max is contacted by a documentary filmmaker interested in making a movie about the incident. She wants Max to look up his old friend, now out of prison, and get the lowdown on what really happened, and, more important, why.
Max himself is a dizzying assortment of complexes and insecurities, twice married to non-Jewish women, Chloe and Zoe. When finally he marries a Jewish woman, that doesn't work, either ("I couldn't take the gloomy consciousness of history I'd married her for"), and here Jacobson's wild plastering on of humor for once spills over the top: Max's Jewish wife's name? Alys.
"Kalooki Nights" is a rollicking high wire act; compulsively readable, it surges through its 450 pages with fuel from a wonderful collection of sources. Jacobson is a master of characterization, delineating whole personalities in but a few lines. As a young boy, Max is fascinated by a sexy Kalooki-playing friend of his mother. His father describes her as looking like a wedding.
"'Which part?' I asked him. 'All of it - the chuppa, the table decorations, the band, the dancing, the cake, everything.' ... She was a woman who did everything up close. Tough, if you didn't like the smell of wedding cake, but I did. Marzipan in particular. An extravagance of almonds and sugar and egg whites."
And almost unbelievably, he creates in Chloe's charmingly hateful mother a character whose chirpy, cheerful, out-front anti-Semitic insults, directed in person to Max, are so hilariously delivered that you almost feel drawn to her, as does Max. These scenes invariably end in Max's making an even more deprecating remark about Jews, to show that he doesn't take any of it seriously - after which, infuriated, he simply cannot believe that once again she has maneuvered him into self-flagellation.
The novel is also shot through with Max's polished and eminently quotable ruminations about Jewish identity, especially in its various British forms. But not always: "It's not only the sins that are visited upon you if you take the details of your antecedents seriously," he muses. "Start admitting guilt from five millennia back and you'll be privy to the good times too. The golden calf, for example ... what a hoot of a (blanking) night that was!"
It's also, of all things, a love story: Asher, Manny's older brother, falls for a young Catholic girl. How their romance progresses, is cut short and then all but magically reignites, while the brief, explosive catalyst that drives the story, is a compelling, gripping, heartrending tale on its own that will have you, as the blurbmeisters like to put it because there's really no other way to put it, racing to the end.
Of his art as a cartoonist, Max says, "In the end the tyranny of the box asserts itself in one way or another, circumscribing speech, restricting character, determining action according to the complexion of your prejudices. Despite our seeming subversiveness, we are no more unconfined, and no more want to be unconfined, than the most straitlaced teller of morality tales."
This is not unlike the sense American readers may have as they make their way through "Kalooki Nights." The Jewish experience, or rather, experiences in England, feel, compared to their counterparts in the United States, exactly that: more circumscribed, confined; there is none of the exuberance that characterizes, say Saul Bellow's "The Adventures of Augie March," and it is impossible even to imagine Max experiencing anything like the joy and freedom of young Alex Portnoy in center field - and the problem is not, to be sure, baseball vs. cricket.
Some of Bernard Malamud's characters would, however, fit in rather well in Crumpsall. That could be called the exception that proves the rule or, more appropriate in this case - not to mention more fun - sets off the argument.
OF FLYING CARS AND JETPACKS
William H. Daniel answers questions that have been bothering a lot of us for a long, long, time:
Why can't I buy a flying car? How come there are still no mindreading devices? And where, O Lord, are those X-ray glasses I longed for so desperately in my adolescence and could still, I promise you, put to some use today?
Answers with attitude can be found in Daniel's "Where's My Jetpack? A Guide to the Amazing Science Fiction Future That Never Arrived" (Bloomsbury, 192 pages, $15). The jetpack, he explains, has been around for decades, but no one can find a practical use for it, as it has limited range and is extremely dangerous to operate. The military was pretty jazzed about it until their brain trust determined that having unarmed soldiers - jetpacks are bulky and very heavy - floating in the air for about a minute isn't a sound offensive tactic.
Daniels does get down into the science, explaining why such things as teleportation, underwater hotels and ray guns either will likely never work, don't work yet, don't work well enough to be worth the trouble or are just an awful idea to begin with: Yes, people really did believe - and some may well continue to believe - that the movie-going experience would be enhanced by Smell-O-Vision.
Jetpacks, though, are still around, and are likely to remain so. "Wherever a dangerous new technology exists," Daniel assures us, "there is a guy with cool goggles and streaky blonde hair waiting to shatter his fibula."