"Tar Beach" is a kind of Jewish "Huckleberry Finn," with a good measure of "The Scarlet Letter" thrown in. Normally, to compare a modern novel with such standard classics is to put down the newer piece as mere imitation, but it is a measure of Richard Elman's talent as a novelist that he makes "Tar Beach" a unique piece of fiction that defies categories--even though there are many categories it can easily be included in.
It is, first, a novel about growing up Jewish in Brooklyn in the time just after World War II. It is the end of an era, a time when the gods are changing for what had been a very insulated community. The characters--a group as tightly knit as the ensemble of a play, whom we follow through the course of a single day--are local businessmen and their wives, whose normal interests run to buying up hot properties, making money and cutting a prosperous figure in the community. But they all have been touched by the millions of Jewish deaths in Europe during the Holocaust, and they are all caught up in the postwar surge of Zionism, specifically the quest of the Jewish people for a homeland in Israel. At the same time as they are bound together by their identity as members of a persecuted race, they are also forced to challenge many of their historic beliefs. Communism and universal brotherhood are alluring creeds, which seem to deny the specialness previously attributed to being born a Jew.
The world of the novel is seen chiefly through the eyes of Peter, the 8-year-old, putative son of attorney "Little Sam" Pintobasco. We learn early on, however, that Peter's real father is a womanizing dress salesman and part-time torch singer named Izzy Berliner. The love-and-pain triangle among these two fathers and their single son, and the identity crisis it engenders in Peter, is the engine that propels the novel to its tragic and very moving conclusion.
Sam and Izzy could hardly be more different. Sam is a worrier, preoccupied with his career, and spends little time with his wife and children. He's a short, unattractive man, and less than exciting in bed. His chief ambition is to get himself elected president of temple. Izzy is tall, handsome, a poet with the love lyrics he croons all day long, and he literally charms the pants off every woman he meets. He's also a Communist, who believes that "property is theft," and cares little for material possessions. Izzy has lived by his ideals--he even went off to Spain to try to help the Republican cause in the civil war there--but like a lot of idealists his real life is in shambles. He never got to see action in Spain, never became the hero he dreamed of being. His marriage fell apart when his legitimate son Sigmund died, and he only keeps the bills paid by borrowing money steadily from Sam.
Izzy's only hope in life is the son whom he can never openly acknowledge as his. He gives Peter the love and attention that Sam is too busy to provide. A lot of the almost surrealistic climate of the novel comes from the fantasy world, "Uganda," that Izzy has fabricated for Peter and himself to inhabit. They have even devised their own private language, "Swiddish," a mixture of Yiddish and Swahili, which they speak to each other, much to practical Sam's irritation.
Almost the whole novel takes place on the rooftop of their tenement, "tar beach," where the men and women sunbathe in separate locations. The rooftop becomes a kind of steamy jungle, with the characters confronting one another completely nude (straining credulity a bit for the time and place), and all their animal passions coming to the fore.
There we meet Lillian, Sam's wife and Izzy's lover, a woman too beautiful and sensitive for her own good who spends her days comparing notes with Etta, Izzy's wife, about "body functions, the basic-unit course of their boredom."
Like Shakespeare or James Joyce (one feels the influence of both), Elman succeeds in creating a complete world in one little place. And he does so in a poetic prose where words sit precisely like tiles in a complex tessellation. When Peter discovers the body of Abraham Abraham, the recently deceased temple president whose heavy presence far below in the building has been catalyzing so many of the day's extraordinary events, Elman writes with an almost scientific detachment:
"Dressed for eternity in a morning suit of striped trousers and a cutaway coat, Abraham Abraham seems to peer down at his pince-nez which dangles on a black ribbon across his vest so that it glitters coldly back up at the viewer. . . . Standing so close to this waxy little man in his great boat of a casket, abandoned to wreaths and floral tributes, Peter feels himself in a cold shrivel, peers up at the ceiling where Moses just clopped a rock with his staff and made Vichy water gush forth."