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Out of Time | RICHARD EDER

THE PUTTERMESSER PAPERS.\o7 By Cynthia Ozick\f7 .\o7 Alfred A. Knopf: 236 pp., $23\f7

June 15, 1997|RICHARD EDER

Take Pnin, Vladimir Nabokov's sweetly oblivious professor, and make him itchily aware of absolutely everything. Take Zuckerman, Philip Roth's itchily aware alter ego, and make him sweet. Fuse them into an aging female Jewish intellectual and you get Ruth Puttermesser, Cynthia Ozick's hapless emissary to the killing grounds, where life avenges itself upon the mind and reality upon the imagination.

"Puttermesser" is German for butter knife. Ozick's protagonist makes repeated stabs for the absolutes of truth, creativity, love and transcendence. No blood comes out. What does come out--an "Alas"--is less palpable and conceivably more enduring than the trophies of keener-bladed cultural warriors. At the end of the last stage of her intellectual pilgrimage--she has died, gone to heaven and finds it a mistake--Puttermesser sings:

Oh bitter, bitter, bitter

butter

knife.

Each of the five episodes that make up "The Puttermesser Papers" ends in a lament of some kind, generally over the mess that awaits those who still attempt to pursue the true and the beautiful. Ozick, an upstream-swimming critic and novelist in an age that lacks a discernible current of any kind, has devised her own alter ego in Puttermesser. She treats her with a mixture of sympathy, irony and despair.

Puttermesser resembles Ozick physically or, at least, she resembles the idea Ozick seems to have of her own looks. She has "a Jewish face and a modicum of American distrust of it." Her hair is near-black, her nose is thick, her eyes faintly slanted and "with all this, it was a fact she was not bad-looking." Certainly, her fantasy of a perfect hereafter is one we can imagine Ozick--a book worshiper who lives a quite private life in Westchester--as having.

Puttermesser would sit under a middle-size tree, surrounded by greenery. On her left hand would be a box of fudge; on her right, the Crotona Park branch library, "ascended intact, sans librarians and fines, but with its delectable terrestrial binding-glue fragrances intact." She would read and read without limit and consume fudge. She would take in."

Earth is not heaven, though, nor even the unsatisfactory place that heaven does finally turn out to be. Puttermesser must live, strive and burn and do everything twice as hard and twice as well, despite her foreknowledge, which Ozick grandly lets us share, that the road to disaster is paved with extra virtue and extra effort. The piano music she keeps from her childhood bears her teacher's markings of how far to practice.

Puttermesser always practiced further. She was editor of the Law Review at Yale. This earned her, back in the 1950s, a job as one of four Jews and the only woman at the bottom of a top New York law firm. Others--though none of the Jews--were groomed for partnership; she produced formidably, and when she finally quit to work for the city, the senior partners took her out to a nice lunch.

As an assistant corporate counsel in the municipal receipts and disbursements department, she works even harder: the indispensable mainstay of the commissioner, a rich dilettante and big political contributor. Ozick, who tries on versions as if they were costumes, dangles and quickly withdraws the notion that Ruth and the commissioner will marry. Puttermesser's romance, at this point--she is in her mid-30s--is a fantasy of becoming a Hebrew scholar under the instruction of her saintly and impoverished great uncle, Zindel.

In the second episode, fantasy takes center stage. Puttermesser, now in her 40s, is unjustly fired from her job to make way for the political appointee of a mayor who closely resembles--white mustache, impassive expression--David Dinkins.

Not quite intending it, she builds a golem out of the dirt from her numerous potted plants. First, though, she consults her library to make sure that the legendary Rabbi Loewe of Prague, the first golem-builder, was no mystical Hasid but a serious and methodical scholar.

The golem, a 15-year-old who calls herself Xanthippe, obeys sullenly when given household chores. Her mission is to make her mistress great. She writes out a visionary program, organizes a political campaign and gets Puttermesser elected mayor. Soon New York becomes utopia: no crime or meanness, all wallets returned with credit cards and cash intact, libraries open all night and the Department of Welfare transformed into the Department of Day Play.

As golems will do, Xanthippe gets out of hand. In this case, she discovers sex; before long, she has ravished the entire upper tier of the city administration. Puttermesser, her political vision destroyed by earthy--literally in this case--realities, is driven from office. Xanthippe, dismantled by reverse incantation, becomes an additional dirt plot in a park near the city hall.

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