Before My Life Began
by Jay Neugeboren (Simon & Schuster: $18.95; 391 pp.)
With more than half a dozen works of fiction under his name (many of these with good reviews attached), Jay Neugeboren should be sailing into early middle age proud of his past productions and ambitious for others. But ambition, as "The Stolen Jew," Neugeboren's most recent novel, proved, doesn't solve problems of design. In this new novel, too, ambition in fact enlarges the writer's defects. In "Before My Life Began," Neugeboren is like a basketball player whose talents show up best close inside to the net but is trying a long, nearly impossible outside jump shot.
In the abstract, the material of this present novel sounds quite fascinating. David Voloshin, the son (and nephew) of Jewish gangsters from New York, tells the story of his "two" lives, the one, as a child, immersed in the milieu of the city and its denizens during and just after World War II, and the other as Aaron Levin, a new man, a civil rights worker during the '60s in the Deep South. Fascinating, yes? How will the writer bring these two different worlds together? In the end, though, no amount of scheming or figuring can do the job. What a writer needs in this situation--an upper-case version of all writers' problems, really--is the vision to match his ambition. In Neugeboren's case, the vision seems absent, and we're left with two neatly formed but finally unsatisfying narratives, one set in New York and the other in the South.