Norman Flax is having writer's block. By day he sells typewriters with Yiddish keyboards. By night he tries to craft fiction. But this particular night the story he is trying to write isn't working and Lola, his girlfriend, is attempting to help, standing naked behind him with some professional aids, two peeled lichee nuts, "two wet ivory balls like tantalizing pearls in her palms." This seems, at first, a rather jejune way to get into a story: bring on the sex to grab the reader's attention. Throw in an adolescent boy's wet dream: the naked Lola. But there is something blushingly compelling about Lola and her lichee nuts, whom we meet in the first story in Norman Ravvin's new collection. Lola's sex is trying to reawaken a fading language, Yiddish. Her inspiration as muse is what allows Norman Flax to create his stories. Without her he can't write. In Yiddish or English. He becomes psychologically immobile.
Norman Flax is, like many of the other characters in Ravvin's fiction, a Jewish man searching for some meaning in his life. Not a neurotic nebbish, like the bespectacled character in Woody Allen's films. Or the wise-cracking boychiks in Philip Roth's stories. The men in Ravvin's tales are often like the characters in an Anne Tyler novel: passive characters who are leading uneventful lives until something unexpected happens. The event, though often not profound, shakes off their lethargy, makes them see the world with a new clarity. Ravvin's men are quiescent until an aunt in Glendale, California dies or a Montreal hospital is felled by a wrecking crew, and then their lives are transformed; they begin to meet strange people in odd places. Like the Kwakiutl Indian who appears in the old Automat restaurant in New York City. Or an unconscious, but babbling Louis Prima, a jazz musician who is lying in a New Orleans sanitarium. There are also Ken Keseyian elements thrown in to add to the almost surreal experiences of Ravvin's characters. For instance, one of Prima's sanitarium-mates is an Indian man named Red Thunder Cloud who spends his days teaching the almost forgotten Catawba language to the schizophrenic cousin of the narrator. The sanitarium is indeed like a cuckoo's nest.
The seven short stories in Sex, Skyscrapers, & Standard Yiddish take us around the world: from Serbia to Colorado to California to Poland. One of the most disturbing tales is told by a Polish anti-Semite, Peter Klosowsky, a man eternally haunted by the Jews who have disappeared from his community. We first meet him when he's in his bathtub, thinking about his visit to a ruined synagogue. The eeriness of the light coming through the desolate synagogue windows reminds him of winter, of shadows: ".shadows of Jews he hated. Shadows like a prayer shawl seen disappearing around the corner of irretrievable years. He hated these Jews all the more in their absence, in the weight of their memory. Their memory made a mess of everything." His thoughts roam to events later in the day, to his meeting with a Jewish American who is looking for his ancestral home. Klosowsky suspects it's the home he is now living in; the bathtub he is soaking in once belonged to the American's family. And his meeting with the man revives his dormant feelings of anti-Semitism, his assault as a boy on this man's father, a storekeeper named Joseph Erenberg. He recalls throwing a rock at Erenberg, being smacked across the face by the storekeeper in return, thus forcing his father to pick up his antique gun and confront the Jew, who, trying to avoid trouble, buys the father's silence with a satchel full of Turkish tobacco. "Thinking now of his father with his antique gun, Klosowsky realized for the first time that the man had traded his son's honour for a week of good smoking."
Indirectly, through this story, Ravvin is returning to his theme of Jewish men trying to find some meaning in their lives; this time it's Erenberg's son looking for some ancestral connections. But the Pole Klosowsky is affected, too, his life irrevocably touched by Erenberg's quest. He's left to cope with his inexhaustible hatred. Alone in a bathtub.
Ravvin's writing is spare and energetic in its clarity. Occasionally there are lovely turns of phrase that elevate the prose and allow the images to linger: Klosowsky's bathroom "was glitteringly white-its walls like the sheer verticals of high summer clouds, the white tub and the adjacent bidet gleaming as though they were made of something finer than porcelain. They might have been formed of the silk trail of a bride, the quivering perfect white of an eye." There is also a sense of humour, of playfulness, that is reminiscent of Isaac Bashevis Singer's characters in his stories for children: the ridiculously absent-minded Professor Schliemel, who can never find his way home; the idiotic residents of the town of Chelm who lurch from one disaster to another. Ravvin is obviously influenced by Singer, whom he quotes on the flyleaf of his book: "Often I heard tales of which I said,/ `Now this is a thing that cannot happen.'/ But before a year had elapsed/ I heard that it actually had come to pass." Like Singer, Ravvin plays with the fantastical, twists reality to amuse and provoke. His short stories are engaging and well-crafted. It will be interesting to see what he comes up with next.
Jennifer Hunter is a Vancouver writer.