Someone to Run With, by David Grossman

This is a fine novel from 2000 about two teenagers caught in the underworld of Jerusalem. It begins: “A dog runs through the streets, a boy runs after it.” The boy, Assaf, belongs to a poor family, and has a summer job with the city. The dog, a yellow Lab, is Dinka, and belongs to the teenage girl, Tamar. Actually, she has lost the dog before the novel begins, and on the opening pages Assad is following the dog as she seeks out her mistress’ former haunts.

We thus confront a simple beginning, but a complicated novel, complicated because its story does not does not flow in sequence. It is told in different time frames, switching us back and forth between Assaf and Tamar. And to compound the confusion that Tamar’s story has happened before Assaf’s begins, we learn in progressively slow stages why Tamar and Assaf are even doing what they are doing. Indeed, Tamar’s story has nothing to do with her dog. Dinka is simply with Tamar as the girl attempts to join an underground street gang for, at first, unknown reasons. In sum, it is not easy to adjust to the fact that the first story, Assaf’s, is actually happening after the story of Tamar, which soon dominates the novel.

And so while we begin with Assaf running through the streets behind Dinka, who is looking for her mistress, it is really Tamar who is the main character, as well as a more complex character. At first, we do not even know why she wishes to catch the attention of the gang, why she wants to be invited to join it. Slowly, we gather that she wishes to rescue someone in the gang and that she is desperate to do so. But all we know about this gang is that it is run by hard-nosed Pesach, a Russian thug who distributes drugs and sends young runaways out into the streets to perform and collect donations, while gang leaders pick the pockets of those who stop to listen or watch.

But Tamar realizes that the only way she can get inside the gang is to be invited, and so she offers her talent as a brilliant singer. It is a dangerous decision, for once you are in the gang it is difficult to leave. And we do not understand her decision to join, moreover, until she starts planning the rescue. And only when we know whom she wishes to rescue do we realize the reason for her commitment. Much less, the difficulty she faces in rescuing this victim who has been seduced through drugs into joining the gang.

Meanwhile, we keep switching into the future to follow Assaf as Dinka leads him to clue after clue in the search for her owner. And Assaf himself receives, like the reader, a tour of seedy Jerusalem and an introduction to a range of unusual characters. These alternate time frames are somewhat confusing for a while, but each teenager is so well drawn (Tamar, an extrovert, older and wiser than her years, and the introvert Assaf, an innocent confronting the darker side of the city), that both come alive in their world of self-doubt. And so well captured is the desperation of the victims Tamar finds caught in the gang, and so well captured is Assaf’s innocence as he encounters Jerusalem’s unknown world, that we are caught up in both their tales.

What is most remarkable about this novel is that the two main characters meet only at the novel’s climax. Otherwise, they do not know that each other exists. Yet in their yearning, in their search for fulfillment, in their idealism, they seem meant for each other, and the reader cannot wait for them to finally meet. But, of course, the entire structure of the novel has been created to keep them apart. They exist, after, all in two time frames.

This becomes a story of love on many levels. It begins with Dinka’s love of her mistress, as well as Tamar’s love of her dog. It is even more Tamar’s love of her family, since the main action of the novel is built around both the rescue of a loved one and her effort to weed him from drugs. And, finally, there is the burgeoning love of Tamar and Assaf, as each finds in the other what has been missing from their lives, essentially a tenderness that breaks through the hard shell they have built around themselves to survive.

As for love at the family level, it exists in both Tamar’s and Assaf’s family, even though a few do not recognize it. There is even love within the gang’s victims, especially between Tamar and her roommate Sheli. And Assaf has his friend Rhino, who will play a crucial role at the end.

That ending, in fact, is for me the only mis-step in the novel. It is too dramatic, almost soap-operatic, in its turn of events. In particular, its drama contrasts with the development of a tender relationship between Tamar and Assaf, a relationship that seems headed for love, until rudely interrupted. And I was not convinced by either that interruption or the fortuitous rescue that followed. At least, the novel ends on a grace note, as Grossman returns to the possibility of love. The last sentence reads: “Tamar noticed that she had never met a person she felt so comfortable being silent with.”

While some have considered this a young adult novel, the Germans even honoring it as such, it is also a valid adult novel. It simply has two teenage protagonists. And if the movement is fast-paced, to appeal to a younger audience, the novel also probes its characters’ interior lives as well as tension within the contemporary Jewish society in which they live.

Grossman has also been criticized for continuously withholding information from the reader. To enhance the suspense. To entice younger readers who are more interested in plot than in character. The Times reviewer Claire Messud writes: “As readers, we are being toyed with.” She also writes of the author’s manipulation of his two heroes: “Where are the parents of these young people? Why aren’t their surrogate guardians more attentive?… Grossman’s tale requires that Tamar and Assaf be independent agents in order that they may fulfill their respective quests and (inevitably) find each other.”

To me, this is accurate, but unfair. We would not have a story if the lead characters were not on their own. They would not have the independence that leads them to one another. Nor the recognition that they complement one another. We would have an adventure story without a love story. We would have a young adult novel rather than an adult novel. This is not Grossman’s only novel, incidentally, about the search for love. (September. 2016)

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World Gone By, by Dennis Lehane

As I’m reading this 2015 novel, I’m thinking: this is the gangster novel to end all ganster novels. And then I remember: that is how I began my review of his last novel, Live by Night. So which is better? This novel. Because Joe Coughlin has more depth. He is tring to leave the world of violence behind, (Shades of Godfather!), and a ghost of the past haunts him. Moreover, as my interest grows, I realize that Dennis Lehane also loves his hero, and whether or not Joe survives at the end of this work might well depend on whether Lehane wants to write another novel about him. Which he could. But will he?

Joe Coughlin is still a gangster in Florida as the book opens, but he no longer sees himself as such, because he has retired from directing underworld affairs. He is now on the crime family’s, so to speak, board of directors. He has made a lot of money for his criminal friends, and they continue to benefit from his past actions. And so he tries for a life of comfort with his young son Tomas, from whom he tries to coneal his past, even as he persists in an affair and continues advising his underworld friends.

But as the novel opens, he is surprised to hear of a threat to his life. It appears to make no sense, because he has helped so many friends become wealthy. And then comes a very provocative and innovative scene, when Joe sees off in the distance the vague figure of a young boy. Is he real or imaginary? Who is he supposed to be? Himself? And if he is a ghost, does that means there is life after death, and thus exists the God that Joe says he doesn’t believe in? And if God does exist, is he sending a message to Joe?

As these mirages continue to pop into Joe’s vision, one senses that at a minimum they express a guilty conscience. And even Joe wonders, at times, if he will be damned. For peace of mind, however, he has compartmentalized his life, justifying to himself each person he has killed. It was out of loyalty, or self-defense, or simply to benefit the organization that relied on him.

The details of this book, of his search for the person who will kill him, do not really matter. What matters is that they kept me reading this novel in large gaps. In fact, I read it in three takes. Because each step Joe makes to discover his potential murderer leads to a new threat, a new risk, a new confrontation with friends who may not be the friends they seem to be. Or with enemies Joe respects and who respect him.

This historic context adds further interest and a deeper reality to this work. For the events take place during World War II, when the underworld controls many of the docks and the war effort depends on the shipping of men and material abroad. Moreover, Joe is dealing here with real gangsters, with Meyer Lansky. Lucky Luciano, and others. He even suggests an idea for getting Luciano out of jail after the war, and history reveals he actually was released. To which might be added a touch of Batista’s Cuba, and the inroads that Joe has helped to make there for Lansky.

There is also, as I said, a love affair, a surprising one for the reader; and it is milked until the very end. Will they or won’t they, go off together into the sunset? His lover is not sure, because he is a gangster, and she is a respectable woman, even if in thrall to him. But through her we see the sensitivity and the yearning for good that is inside Joe, and which he cannot express in his relationships with gangster friends.

He does express it regarding his son Tomas, protecting him at all cost. He even tries to protect him from the truth about himself, but fails. He worries, however, about his son’s future as well as his own. Will he be around tomorrow to protect him?

The internal morality of the gangsters also raises this work to a serious level, a literary level. The rationale is that an attack on a fellow crime family member is an attack on me. It is an eye-for-an eye philosophy that enables Joe and others to stand against the world. Thus, the violent death of any crime family member calls for an equal payback. This is true whether the killer is a member of an enemy gang or the same crime family. It is also true whether or not the killer was justified in killing the crime family member, such as when an enemy kills in self-defense.

The reason for the title is elusive. Does it mean that in his semi-retirement Joe has tried to leave his old world behind, or that that world has now left him behind? Does it refer to the ghost of the boy and his world? Does it suggest that Joe will leave this world for another world? It is provocative, like the rest of the book.

Which brings us to the ending. Three shocking events take place over the last eight pages, as if Lehane wants to top himself, and sock the reader—pow, pow. But are these events real? The first event is unpleasant but inevitable in the book’s terms, whereas the next is hopelessly romantic and contrary to the book’s terms, and the last is more an intrusion by the author, and might have worked only if it had been set up more carefully.

As a result, the author himself guides the action, and produces little satisfaction. Beause his ending is too arbitrary, and not a little puzzling. This is how it ends, the author says. That, in his mysterious world human actions have many repercussions, and worldly endings do not always make true endings. He ends with Joe hoping “there was more to this than a dark night, an empty beach, and waves that never quite reached the shore.”

I look forward to reading more Lehane. With that name, and a presumably Catholic background, he regards life much as I do, that humans are complex beings, that evil exists in this world, that another world may await beyond this one, and that earthly justice does not always prevail.

I have no idea, however, what his next novel will be about. Just as he plucked an inconsequential Joe out of The Given Day, will he pluck Tomas out of this novel and move a decade or so ahead? And whomever he focuses on, will he go back to Boston? Which I would like but do not really expect. Or might his hero move to Lehane’s new home in California, home of Latino gangs, racial violence, politics, water rights, and the entertainment industry?

It makes no difference. I am committed. (July, 2015)