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The Jerusalem File - A Review

The Jerusalem File by Joel Stone
Europa Editions,
ISBN 978-1-933372-65-5
Soft Cover, 150 pages. $15.00

Novelist Walker Percy never read The Jerusalem File by Joel Stone. I did, however, and the experience reminded me of a now-famous story that Percy used to tell:

"While I was teaching at Loyola in 1976 I began to get telephone calls from a lady unknown to me. What she proposed was preposterous. It was not that she had written a couple of chapters of a novel and wanted to get into my class. It was that her son, who was dead, had written an entire novel during the early sixties, a big novel, and she wanted me to read it. "Why would I want to do that?" I asked her. "Because it is a great novel," she said.

Over the years I have become very good at getting out of things I don't want to do. And if ever there was something I didn't want to do, this was surely it: to deal with the mother of a dead novelist and, worst of all, to have to read a manuscript that she said was great, and that, as it turned out, was a badly smeared, scarcely readable carbon.

But the lady was persistent, and it somehow came to pass that she stood in my office handing me the hefty manuscript. There was no getting out of it; only one hope remained—that I could read a few pages and that they would be bad enough for me, in good conscience, to read no farther. Usually I can do just that. Indeed the first paragraph often suffices. My only fear was that this one might not be bad enough, or might be just good enough, so that I would have to keep reading.

In this case I read on. And on. First with the sinking feeling that it was not bad enough to quit, then with a prickle of interest, then a growing excitement, and finally an incredulity: surely it was not possible that it was so good."

What Walker Percy read that day turned out to be better than just "good." He discovered and brought to the world's attention a novel that, after publication, went on to become a bestselling, Pulitzer Prize winning "cult classic," A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole.

I confess to opening Joel Stone's novel with a similar lack of enthusiasm. At first glance, it was an unprepossessing little paperback book, written by a deceased author I did not know, published by a company I had never heard of, and submitted for review by the late author's widow. My curiosity was piqued, however, by some back cover praise for a previous book by this author, A Town Called Jericho, from some legitimate newspapers and magazines. Thus, with one eye on the book and the other on a news program on TV, I began to read The Jerusalem File.

Within a minute, however, the TV was turned off, the reading lamp was turned on, and I was tuned into what I began to realize was an extraordinary book. The Jerusalem File is, quite simply, amazing. A multilayered novel, it is at once a murder mystery, a love story, a meditation on aging, and a low-keyed analysis of the philosophy of Zionism, all set in Jerusalem during the height of the second intifada.

Restaurant diners eye each other suspiciously and people avoid busses as bombs explode and radios solemnly drone casualty reports from every open window. In the midst of all of this, a retired member of the security services is hired by an insanely jealous university professor to become a private eye and investigate his wife who is having a torrid affair with a much younger colleague. The young colleague is shot dead while driving from Jerusalem to Jaffa—by terrorists? by the jealous husband? or perhaps by someone else—and the old investigator soon finds himself falling in love with the cheating young wife.

The main character of the book is the investigator, a grey, nondescript, sixty-ish retired member of the "security services," identified simply as Levin. Divorced, with an ex-wife who lives nearby whom he frequently bumps into with neither joy nor sorrow, two grown children who live abroad, an elderly mother whose sole companion is a radio she never turns off, and an institutionalized father whose demented mind is once again imprisoned at Auschwitz, Levin is an interesting guy. Some of the best parts of the book occur when the author allows us to listen to some of the complicated things going on in his mind. And much of that has to deal with Jerusalem, with Israel, with Jews and Arabs, and with an aging retired security man's changing perspectives on the eternal conflict between "Abraham and Ibrahim."

None of this imaginative storytelling would matter a jot, however, if the book were poorly written. The writing is, in fact, nothing less than superb, and a lot better than much of what has been appearing lately on the New York Times bestseller list for fiction. I do not know who Joel Stone was, whether he was even a professional writer or a talented hobbyist with a "daytime job" that paid the bills. I do know that his death has probably deprived us of a number of no doubt riveting stories that now will never be told and great books that will not be written.

I can only recommend that The Jerusalem File be read by anyone who enjoys a good novel, while I try somehow to find a copy of this gifted author's only other surviving book, A Town Called Jericho. 



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Thursday, 25 July 2024

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