A Good Man

by Cynthia Holz
ISBN: 088762118X

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A Review of: A Good Man
by Maureen Lennon

In her third novel, Toronto writer Cynthia Holz addresses a serious subject-the transference of memories from Holocaust survivors to subsequent generations. As we approach the fiftieth anniversary of the end of the war, children born after 1945 to Holocaust survivors are now becoming grandparents, which means that the memories of their parents are about to pass into the consciousness of a third post-war generation. Consequently, there are thousands of readers for whom this subject is relevant.
Holz divides her novel into two sections: the first part tells a story through the eyes of the Holocaust survivor, the second relates events from the survivor's daughter's point of view. Seventy-eight-year-old Izzy Schneider worries that no one is interested in his past. He draws this conclusion from the behaviour of his forty-seven-year-old daughter Eva, and her sixteen-year-old son, Sam. Both are emotionally distant. What Izzy doesn't realize is that he has passed on his memories of the Holocaust so successfully that they now haunt Eva. Izzy never imagines that she is struggling with a sense of guilt comparable to his own survivor guilt because she has not been able to help her father escape his painful memories. Nor does he recognize that Sam simply can't bridge the gap between his own carefree existence in affluent Toronto and his grandfather's experiences of European civilization gone mad. Disheartened, Izzy faces old age, fearing that his personal history will die with him.
His fear is partially realized when his best friend Phil, also a Holocaust survivor, dies suddenly. Phil was the only person with whom Izzy could swap war stories. Not only was Phil a willing listener, he had stories of his own and these validated Izzy's own experiences. Izzy also looked up to Phil, a recognized war hero. He loved being the friend of someone whose anti-Nazi undertakings were successful. The association eased his own painful sense of failure. But during all the years he knew Phil, he mistakenly believed that a war hero could have no flaws. After Phil's death, as he gradually uncovers a more complete picture of his friend's past, he struggles with the knowledge that wrongdoing as well as heroism characterized Phil's conduct during the war.
Eva has no idea what to do with her acquired' memories. They visit her to the point of distraction. When Sam hands her a yellow and black cloth sports badge that he won playing volleyball, for a fleeting instant she thinks he is handing her the yellow Star of David. But she has no personal experience of Nazi Germany and the edict that forced Jews to wear this symbol. The remembered' scenes that constantly replay in her imagination impose a false sense of responsibility on Eva for she cannot act to rectify any of the injustices. The Nazi regime is gone, the world has moved on. Eva is left to cope with memory, guilt and an inability to bring resolution. Her life has become a daily struggle without a way to give vent to her outrage. At times, she thinks that if her father would just move on, perhaps he would let go of the memories, which would, in turn, cease disrupting her life. But Izzy doesn't know how to move on and Eva doesn't realize that she herself is trapped by the same thing. Betrayed by a lover, she desperately clings to the past, believing that only when she finds and apprehends a logical rationale for the treachery will she be able to move forward. She operates on the mistaken assumption that an explanation exists for wrongdoing and that the uncovering of it will release both her and her father from the unproductive and painful questioning that has trapped them for years.
There are two strengths in this novel: the character of Izzy, and the character of the retirement community in Florida. Izzy is a man with whom a reader can readily sympathize, made thoroughly human by being amusing as well as burdened. By sprinkling the text with Yiddish, such a wonderfully evocative language, even if the Jewish culture might not be familiar, the reader gets a bird's eye view of Izzy's world.
The other characters in the book are not well rounded, however, reading more like sketches. The daughter, Eva, is self-absorbed, and because she is so narrowly rendered, it is difficult to believe her in those moments when she suddenly expresses compassion for her father. The reader doesn't really get to know the grandson, but is asked to believe at the end of the story that he suddenly possesses a remarkable maturity. Holz needed to spend more time giving these characters the depth that she clearly wanted them to have.
The Florida retirement community is wonderfully described in all its harrowing detail, with its intractable homogeneity, the spare rooms, the numbing boredom that is supposed to be the reward for a life of frugality and hard work, the utterly soulless artificiality of the entire neighbourhood.
Finally, I question Holz's choice of vehicle to examine this serious subject. The backdrop to the story is a murder and later, a suggestion that a party to the murder gets away without detection. The characters of the individuals implicated in the murder is distracting and steers the novel towards genre writing. It would have sufficed to have the death occur as a result of an accident or a sudden heart attack. While Holz can be quite good at capturing a quality through comparison, overuse eventually dulled the impact. This type of writing is the very thing Barbara Gowdy addressed earlier this year when she argued in favour of making language serve the story and not the habit of indulgence. Her criticism was a good reminder to everyone who writes and edits to revisit the toolbox of fundamental skills from time to time.

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