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Before My Life Began

October 06, 1985|Alan Cheuse | Cheuse is the author of "The Bohemians," a novel, and other fiction. He is book commentator on NPR's "All Things Considered." and

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.

There are other problems as well with this broken-backed book, and these too stem from ambition. Neugeboren writes with a certain felicity about the main character's childhood, conjuring up a time when Brooklyn kids necked while leaning against brick walls, worshiped the Dodgers, played Monopoly, ate grilled-cheese sandwiches and drank vanilla Cokes. But just as reckless ambitions can stretch a book too far, so the presence of credible details doesn't in itself constitute a completely achieved fiction, and the (understandable) satisfaction that a writer derives from getting such things exactly right, as Neugeboren does, can sometimes hinder him when dealing with the overarching problems--such as where is this novel going?

When David Voloshin becomes a young man, he gets kidnaped by one of his family's rival gangs and in the midst of the event kills a man. But what in the hands of another writer would turn into a matter of conscience in Neugeboren's realm becomes a question of plot. He offers the civil rights material, and the new identity of Voloshin, as a response to the murder, as a way of having Voloshin somehow redeem himself and his past by running away from it. This reader--and I'm probably in the minority, but I have to say what I think--feels as though the writer merely abandoned the first part of Voloshin's life. Ambition has played hopscotch--and hob--with potentially marvelous material.

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