Fish, the traditional redemption symbol, seems to be the leitmotif of Kirk Douglas' steamy and searching first novel. In Kracow, the characters dine on carp; in Lisbon, cod; on the Sunset Strip, smoked salmon and caviar (the makings of "Jewish pizza" at Spago), and, at the home of Milt Schultz, Hollywood agent nonpareil, what else but gefilte fish? (Milt, closest friend of the book's tormented hero, movie director Danny Dennison, hates gefilte fish, which reminds him of "frogs in formaldehyde"). When Danny's marriage, to the exquisite but tragically deranged heiress, Stephanie Stoneham, goes kaput, an early signal is dead tropical fish floating in the couple's aquarium, which Danny will later smash with an empty vodka bottle.
If the book's thematics aspire to the spiritual, its mainspring is strictly of the flesh. Incest (both mother-son and mother-daughter), child molestation and prostitution, and a bisexual menage a trois are just a few of the carnal possibilities offered the reader with clockwork dependability. On Page 14 (and this is not the first sex scene), 7-year-old Moishe Neumann and his older sister Rachel watch two horses copulate graphically on the south German farm where the family is hiding from the Nazis. Mameh (Mother) is aghast, but Tateh (Father) reassures his daughter that sex is quite natural. "There is . . . all kinds of sex," he says, and the author spares no effort in proving Tateh right.
The Neumanns, betrayed by Hans the hired hand, are shipped to San Sabba concentration camp in northern Italy, where only little Moishe survives the war. So enraged is he over his Jewish fate that he tells the American GI who liberates him that he is a Gypsy named Danny, and not a Jew. Thus begins the big lie that forms the focus of Douglas' story.
Danny is taken to a Catholic orphanage in Syracuse, N.Y., is adopted by an Episcopalian schoolteacher who takes him to movie matinees, and to bed. He studies film at USC, where he joins a fraternity that bars Jews, and embarks on a lucrative career as a director, specializing in Westerns with plots lifted from Shakespeare.
For all his success, Danny feels empty, unfulfilled. His father, an amateur metal sculptor, had been a true artist. He, the crypto-Jewish hack (his adaptation of "The Prince and the Pauper" has triggered the tidal wave of teen movies), sees himself as a fake and a whore. To upgrade his situation, he undertakes a film version of the 15th-Century morality play "Everyman," against, needless to say, the advice of Milt, who sees it as too "Kafka"; " 'Good Deeds? That's supposed to be a character? No plot. It's just one long sermon."
Douglas, too, is aiming at something more than mere entertainment, but he's less rash than his hero, and plants Danny's existential crisis upon a sturdy frame of melodramatic hokum: his divorce from Stephanie and the custody battle over their daughter, and an obsessive romance with oversexed, 20-year-old Luba, a London-based Polish refugee, sometime actress, budding artist, and like her voluptuous mother Magda, a prostitute of Olympic caliber. "Shame was not even in her vocabulary," writes Douglas of Luba. "He (Danny) lived with it every day." Luba's stunning honesty contrasts so sharply with Danny's lack thereof that his encounter with her drives him to cast off his deceptions and embark on a painful voyage of self-discovery.
"Dance With the Devil" invites comparison with Douglas' fascinating memoir, "The Ragman's Son" (1988), sharing with it the theme of rediscovered Jewish pride and no small number of incidents and characters, chief among them the author himself. It can't be accidental that Kirk Douglas, the all-American movie star who began life as Issur Danielovitch, calls his hero Danny Dennison. But the novel lacks the rough-hewn charm of the autobiography, if none of its candor and worthy ambitions; and apart from Danny, most of the characterizations are stuck in cliche.
Agent Milt begins most sentences with "boychick"; the proper British ex-army officer who marries Magda is in fact a violent sadist; the teen-throb actor starring in Danny's latest film is crazed on coke; Stephanie's absurdly evil father, J. L. Stoneham, is "Dallas' " J. R. by way of John Huston in "Chinatown." And there's even a headwaiter named Tony.
I liked a walk-on called Chaim, a Auschwitz survivor who meets Magda in a refugee camp. If you lapse into bitterness, he counsels her, "you lock arms with the Devil, and he makes you dance to his tune." Chaim's avocation is--one guess--fishing. One day Luba, aged 15, and her dog, Blue Boy, accompany Chaim to the river; Luba gets wet, strips off her clothes, and in a trice, Chaim becomes a lot less wise, and Luba downright unlikable: "Triumphant, Luba made love to her mother's lover on the bank of a river, next to a dead fish, with Blue Boy barking."
Giddy prose, I guess, comes with the genre and offers a sort of pleasure--in long supply in this book--all its own.