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Book Review : Post-Mortem on Bitterness

October 01, 1987|JONATHAN KIRSCH

Fall Out of Heaven: An Autobiographical Journey by Alan Cheuse (Gibbs M. Smith Inc./Peregrine Smith Books, P.O. Box 667, Layton, Utah 84041: $17.95, 328 pages)

After my recent musings in these pages over the death of my father, I received a letter from an old acquaintance who is confronting her own father's grave illness and precarious mortality. We have since corresponded about the strange and wonderful ways in which the soul of a departed father can persist after death--not only in memory, but in heart and soul, and in even more urgent and ineffable ways. To her I commend Alan Cheuse's "Fall Out of Heaven," which is--at once--the exotic tale of a father's unlikely adventures and unsuspected heroism, the public confession of a son's estrangement in childhood and bitterness as an adult, and a celebration of the belated intimacy of father and son which is achieved, tragically but also triumphantly, only after death.

"Fall Out of Heaven" consists of three interwoven narratives. Cheuse's father, Fishel Kaplan, was a decorated hero of the Red Air Force whose crash in the Sea of Japan in an experimental fighter opened the way to the West--Kaplan left behind a memoir of his adventures in love and war which Cheuse has retold in a vivid first-person account. Then we have Cheuse's own reminiscences of his childhood in New Jersey in the late '40s and early '50s; Cheuse and his father, now an embittered worker in a General Motors assembly plant ("the sour-faced oppressor, the sentimental dreamer, the Philistine"), engage in a painful but all-too-familiar cold war that persists unto the old man's death.

Visit to Soviet Union

Finally, we have Cheuse's account of the pilgrimage that he and his son made to the Soviet Union to visit the sites of his own father's exploits. "I am this crazy, crazy, crazy man walking along the Nevsky Prospect talking to a ghost in my brain. And in my chest, and in my heart," Cheuse admits. " 'We never talked like this before,' I tell him."

These three narratives are not equally successful. The father's tale is the most compelling, and the most crucial to Cheuse's theme of history--personal, family and world history--as a source of psychoanalytical and ultimately spiritual self-revelation. Cheuse's father was an authentic hero in a dirty little war that the Bolsheviks fought against Turkomen tribesmen in the aftermath of the Russian Civil War, and we witness the startling exploits of a brave and brash youth who, we know, will turn into an anguished old man.

"What crazy things were going through his head?" Cheuse writes of his father. "Thoughts of his mother, of course, and his comrades in arms, and some of the places he had seen and passed through, flown over, roared into, images of the sea and the clouds when flying in formation, and sounds in his ears too, the roar of the samolet and the patap-patap of the guns mounted on the wings, the rush of traffic in Shanghai, the calm sky above the old villages in the Ukraine."

Touches of Travelogue

The tale of Cheuse's childhood in Perth Amboy tends to come off as a bit carping and callow, and there are moments in his account of the recent travels in the Soviet Union that are not much more than travelogue. He is guilty of some gratuitous name-dropping. Then, too, it is shocking that a man who wrote a novel about John Reed and the Russian Revolution ("The Bohemians") should succumb to the pleasures of a sumptuous meal aboard a tourist-laden Soviet train: "How could my father have given it all up?" he asks himself. But the effect may have been intentional--"Fall Out of Heaven" is a blunt and unsparing self-history that makes no apologies for the casual emotional brutality, the awful spiritual myopia, that prompt fathers and sons and whole families to turn away from each other.

But Cheuse's book is the story of a successful quest, and we are given a bittersweet but unquestionably happy ending. The triumph of "Fall Out of Heaven," the author's simple gift to himself and his readers, is an extravagantly sentimental but truly sublime climax which (rather like "The White Hotel") offers a perfectly plausible vision of our heavenly destiny.

Moment of Revelation

"I have reached such heights that I can see for thousands of miles back into the time of my father's presence here," writes Cheuse of his moment of revelation upon reaching the backwater of Soviet Central Asia where his father had fought. "I can see the stratosphere where spirits soar, can see the ghosts of our parents, and their parents before them . . . and I look down in the center of things, see the waters come bubbling up, see my daughters and my children's children."

And Cheuse's departed father, speaking as a kindly and gently ironic ghost, pronounces a blessing on his mourning son: "And if you're thinking now, 'Oh, if I could have him back again in the world of the living, I'd even listen to him talk about the moon and about writing, about Israel and time travel . . . about the future and about the past,' " says the father. "And if you're thinking this, then good to think it, and make your peace, and sleep after a while, rest and sleep."

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