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First Novels
by W.P. Kinsella

The Rent Collector by B. Glen Rotchin (Vehicule Press, $19.85, 221 pages, ISBN: 1550651951). With a prayer shawl and a cell phone, Orthodox Jew, Gershon Stein spends his days collecting rent in a large, family-owned building in the deteriorating garment district of Montreal. His father is a Holocaust survivor and "Gershon was certain that he and other children of survivors were members of a separate Israelite clan, a tribe of inbetweeners, not quite victims and not quite survivors, not rememberers nor forgetters, neither here nor there." Gershon tries to study religion, tries to live a good life, but he is buffeted at every turn by devious, cunning tenants who try to short-change him in every way. He thinks of the Mitzvot, God's 613 commandments: "It doesn't matter whether a person feels good about doing them. They're Commandments, as immutable as the laws of nature. Here's how I think about the mitzvot. God made the world. Torah is like an owner's manual, and the mitzvot are like His operating instructions, direct from the manufacturer." Gershon has what he considers a mystical experience when he meets a young bookkeeper in the hall of a building, Michelle Labelle, and sees a mysterious light emanating from her, an aura. This troubles him greatly until he breaks her name into syllables, which become, "a Hebrew sentence, a precise phrase, crystal clear. A message. Mi shel leib El- 'Who is of God's heart.'" There is a hilarious section where Gershon, trying to be profound, compares in many ways the lives of Orthodox Jews and members of the Hell's Angels. He is devastated, after his father has a stroke, to discover that his older brother, single and successful, is to be the beneficiary of his father's will, leaving Gershon out in the cold. However, Gershon is not an entirely reliable narrator. It is not until late in the novel that we see-through the eyes of his dying father-how Gershon is regarded by the rest of the family. This is the sleeper of the year, wryly funny, always plausible, deeply moving, unforgettable.

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