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History's heavy footfalls

The Eighth Wonder of the World A Novel Leslie Epstein Handsel Books: 462 pp., $24.95

October 29, 2006|Thomas Meaney | Thomas Meaney is the literary editor of the New York Sun.

"IT may take a third-generation Jew from L.A. to write a novel about the Holocaust," Leslie Epstein declared when his acclaimed novel "King of the Jews" appeared in 1979. Those were cheeky words from a writer who presumed to fill the shoes of Isaac Bashevis Singer and Bruno Schulz, but the book gave us an unforgettably realized character in I.C. Trumpelman, who, as head of a ghetto Judenrat, played the impossible moral calculus of how best to deliver his people from the camps. In his new novel, "The Eighth Wonder of the World," Epstein has returned to the same Mosaic theme, only this time more outlandishly: His protagonist is a young college graduate trying to save the Jews of Mussolini's fascist Italy.

"Eighth Wonder" tells the story of Amos Prince, "the world's greatest architect," who flees with his three children to Italy, after his house in Arizona is destroyed by a fire. A freewheeling eccentric artist with fascist tendencies (think Ezra Pound or Philip Johnson), Amos gets caught in the thick of Mussolini's victory parade celebrating his conquest of Ethiopia. When the dictator learns of this American genius in his midst, he's tempted to have him design a suitably atrocious memorial to commemorate Italy's exploits. "CREATE A THING OF STRENGTH AND BEAUTY, A THING AS POWERFUL AS FASCIST IDEALS," Mussolini exhorts Amos (rarely does Mussolini resort to lowercase speech), "MAKE FOR IL DUCE THE WINGS THAT WILL LIFT HIM TO THE SKY."

Meanwhile, Maximilian Shabilian, an aspiring architect fresh out of Yale and described as "the whole world's notion of a Jew," tracks down his hero in Italy and gets himself hired as an assistant. He's immediately drawn to Amos' charisma, which Epstein conveys through Amos' endless supply of made-to-order malapropisms. Amos variously refers to his patron as "Mister-loony" or "Il Douche." But the memorial project soon becomes his bridge on the River Kwai -- an architectural obsession he will do anything to complete.

The craziest passage in the book comes early, when a contingent of Nazi notables invites a group of Italian fascists for a ride in the Hindenburg. A delirious cast of historical characters -- including the hedonistic Joseph Goebbels and Juvenal-quoting Joachim von Ribbentrop -- lavishly entertain their black-shirt guests. Mussolini announces the competition for his memorial project, and the brilliant Nazi architect Albert Speer seems like the favorite. But when Amos unveils his plans for a mile-high bureaucratic complex, dubbed La Vittoria (from which the dictator will be able to survey his dominions), he and Shabilian are immediately commissioned. It's no small irony that the eighth "wonder" turns out to be nothing more than a banal office building with an elevator system worthy of Willy Wonka's chocolate factory.

The Nazis also ask the Italians, as their loyal allies, to hand over their Jews. This presents a problem for Maximilian, who's now drawing up blueprints for La Vittoria and is entangled with Amos' beautiful daughter, Aria. Along with Pope Pius XII and Rabbi Zolli, the chief rabbi of Rome, Maximilian comes up with a plan to save the Jews by employing them as workers on the memorial. Epstein's narrative practically bludgeons us with the biblical parallel -- these are the same Jews who built the Pyramids -- to the point that we're insensitive to any poignancy.

When it turns out the Jews will be deported at Himmler's behest anyway, Maximilian, as the modern Moses, shepherds his people onto an ocean liner. En route to Palestine, they encounter a German convoy which forces them to crash into the shoals of an estuary. Here Epstein describes their fate in a somber key:

"The Jews saw the apparition. A great shout went up, a cry of joy. Now the boats could not move quickly enough. Over their sides leaped the men and the women. They splashed from sandbar to sand dune. They slipped on the kelp-covered islands, the reefs sharp with shells. Knee deep they went, waist deep, with their children on their shoulders."

This steady, pathos-ridden passage captures the story's bizarre imaginary testament in the tenor of lines etched into a stone tablet. But it comes too little, too late in a novel that feverishly moves between Chaplinesque caricatures and tragic overtones. Fictional treatments of history's what-could-have-beens must be told with evenhanded assurance if they are going to convince. Philip Roth's "The Plot Against America" made the election of anti-Semitic Charles Lindbergh seem eerily plausible and rendered the possible extinction of Roth's New Jersey boyhood harrowingly real. Epstein has shown himself capable of this kind of storytelling in his other work, but here he mars it with so many antics that the novel, like Maximilian, is too "slap-happy" to move us.

Epstein's talent for dramatization, which he partially owes to his Hollywood ancestry (his father and uncle co-wrote the screenplay for "Casablanca"), may be more of a handicap than a help. The great first-generation Holocaust writers -- Elie Weisel, Primo Levi, Imre Kertesz -- were wary about how much could be said about the events they witnessed. Even the most basic metaphor -- hell -- seemed to them like a dodge. So might Epstein's biblical backdrop. *

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