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Book Review

Darkly Beautiful Tales of Burdened Lives

LIKE NEVER BEFORE, by Ehud Havazelet, Farrar, Straus & Giroux $23, 268 pages

November 10, 1998|MICHAEL FRANK | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Occupying territory between the novel and the grouping of miscellaneous short stories, the linked collection offers a writer an opportunity to move around his characters' lives the way certain painters move around their subject matter, viewing it from a variety of perspectives. In a linked collection, characters can evolve without being led from point to point; they can be visited at different ages; and they can be revealed in compressed bursts of understanding or compassion. The method works particularly well when the characters are linked, by family, background or setting, as they are in Ehud Havazelet's fine new book, "Like Never Before."

Havazelet's milieu is one of transition, opposition and a potent, sometimes burdening, sense of heritage. The heritage is that of Polish Jews, immigrants who fled Nazism to carve out new lives in the disconnecting world of postwar America. Opposition is most often, and most painfully, between father and son: Max Birnbaum, a scholar and a dreamer, and David Birnbaum, an angry youth who becomes an even angrier adult.

Early on in the collection, as Max and David walk home from the yeshiva where Max teaches in Queens, they linger at the Union Turnpike, on an overpass from which they can see 22 roads shooting off in different directions. "From here you could go anywhere," Max tells David, "anywhere on earth." In the penultimate story, when David returns to Queens for the unveiling of his father's tombstone, he has by then traveled along a number of his own roads, many of them leading to disappointment. He recognizes the overpass but doesn't say anything to his sister, Rachel. It is a moment that encapsulates the tenor of these hardened lives: The patterns are there, but they are not always learned from or commented on in reassuring ways.

David's anger seems almost inborn. He engages in activities that "baffle the local geneticists": smoking cigarettes, writing Hebrew transliterations of curse words on the chalkboard, playing ball on Yom Kippur. David's successes reflect his family's glory (his grandfather is a prominent rabbi, his uncle a successful businessman and community leader), while his failures "blot the family name."

As David stumbles toward adulthood, he emerges as a contradictory figure. He fails as an architect; he fails at a first marriage; he moves to Oregon and marries again, but he is seldom without a sense of resentment toward his family and his origins.

Havazelet depicts the rest of the Birnbaum family with similar candor. Max is an imperfect parent whose sternness may derive from having a popular rabbi for a father or from having a brother who was murdered by the Nazis . Rachel is gentler than her brother but similarly challenged finding her own true path. Ruth, their mother, is movingly portrayed while she is dying of cancer ("Ruth's Story") and realizes that she wants to leave her daughter with "some hard-won and invincible truth, something that will remain with her and make things easier."

Solace comes infrequently in Havazelet's world. Ruth finds it in prayers, which "are for ourselves finally . . . for our hurt, our fear, our constant aloneness." David finds it in stories. Although Havazelet remains stern--David's own stories confuse him and make him feel "frozen with loss"--in the act of knowing people, knowing their stories, there is a distinct sense of meaning. By the end of this supple, unsentimental and darkly beautiful book, the reader feels he has come close to knowing the Birnbaums and the world that formed them, a world from which they never wholly break free.

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