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Book Review : Gay Son Enlivens Ethnic Family Saga

September 11, 1987|ELAINE KENDALL

Years From Now by Gary Glickman (Knopf, $16.95; 263 pages)

Just when you thought you had seen the last of the ethnic family novel, here is the whole cast assembled for another curtain call--Zelda, Harry, Max, Sol, Minnie, Irv, Pearl, Grandma Rose, Esther--uncles, aunts and cousins in double digits. Though they're far too numerous to keep straight without program notes, with the exceptions of Beth and David, they're all walk-ons; summoned only for weddings, funerals and seders. For better or worse, Equity has no dominion over the ethnic family novel, which operates under a special waiver agreement. You can have all the extras you want to work for carfare.

The problems faced by the author here are not economic but artistic. How do you get blood out of a stone? If your name isn't Saul Bellow or Phillip Roth, the difficulties can be overwhelming. Actually, even if your name is Bellow or Roth, there are inherent challenges in the material, surmountable only with an ingenious plot, highly individual characters and generous lashings of wit, intellect and style. For others, however, the ethnic family novel is a high-risk enterprise, fraught with peril. So what's a writer to do if he's had the bad luck to be born a couple of decades too late to stake his claim? Let all those memories go to waste? Isn't he just as entitled to his background as those other fellows?

'Found Art' Genre

No question about it. The trouble is, this author seems to have drawn his characters directly from life, without taking any special pains to transform their banal conversation into dialogue, to impose a fictional structure upon the haphazard events of their lives or provide them with any particular motives for their behavior. Of course, that might all be intentional, a kind of found satire, like a plastic artist's found objects, which become a sendup of art merely by being placed in a gallery. Long ago the Dadaists created a sensation with exactly this sort of thing, but somehow it doesn't seem nearly as hilarious or as meaningful in print.

Trite statements aren't improved by being said in multiples. "We'll go with Gloria." "I can't." "Of course you can." "I can't." "Don't say can't. " "I can't." When a phone rings, we hear "Let it ring." "It's probably them." "Let it ring." At the annual family seder, Minnie is the first to rise and say "Irv and I are very happy to be here with all our family." Rose then makes exactly the same announcement, substituting Max for Irv, repeating herself because not everyone can hear.

The novel ambles along in this aimless fashion until Zelda's son, David, reaches adolescence. In this hyperconventional setting, Zelda enjoys an unusual distinction. She has been divorced and remarried, a circumstance that may explain, by default, David's homosexuality. True, we're told that David has always been somewhat more "sensitive" than other kids, perhaps a bit too serious about the piano, but lots of musical youngsters reach maturity without his problem. In all other ways, David is a model son, excelling in medical school.

Meanwhile, in Providence, R.I., far from David's home in Lewiston, N.J., Beth Bauer is growing up preferring girls to boys, though she makes a strenuous effort to overcome her tendencies. Beth and David meet at a party and immediately bond. Think of iron filings and a magnet, or Crazy Glue. For an inordinately long time, the relationship is asexual, as it must be, given their disinclinations. Still, they attend the family festivals as a couple, sometimes bringing their real lovers, sometimes not.

The respective relatives go along with the charade, but after David brings Andrew home and the two of them cuddle openly on the porch swing, the pretenses are dropped. By now David's mother is worldly enough to accept her son's choice. "Are you happy with Andrew?" "Yes, Mom, I am." "I'm so glad. I worried so much over you. And then with AIDS--I guess you're very lucky." "Yes," David said, hesitantly, "I guess I am."

At this point, David envisions, in detail, a wedding traditional in every respect except for the fact that he's marrying Andrew and the service must necessarily be slightly modified. Beth, however, has never actually come to terms with her lesbianism. She desperately wants a child and chooses a desperate means of having one. When we finally leave David, Andrew, Beth and little Colin, everyone seems to be adjusting nicely to the Brave New World of the 1980s, having evaded and trivialized every question and issue raised by the theme.

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