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Wherever You Go - A Review

WHEREVER YOU GO
by Joan Leegant
W.W. Norton + Company. Soft Cover.
253 pages.
ISBN: 978-0-393-05476-7
.

In 1965 the celebrated novelist Muriel Spark published The Mandelbaum Gate, a breezy little novel about quirky eccentric characters, their diverse lives and dreams, and the unexpected sequence of events that lead to their various interwoven adventures in Jerusalem. Spark's storytelling style was whimsical, her attitude somewhat bemused, and her characters all flawed but endearingly human. Referred to by some critics variously as a comedy of manners and a story of female sensibility, The Mandelbaum Gate was, in short, very much a modern novel.

In 2010, award-winning writer Joan Leegant published Wherever You Go, her second novel. It is about deeply complex characters, their extremely problematic lives and yearnings, and the often gripping sequence of events that lead to an act of violence in Jerusalem that changes their lives forever. Leegant's storytelling style is taut and tense, her attitude unsparingly frank—at times dark—and her characters are all deeply flawed, not particularly endearing, and occasionally repulsive. In contrast to the work of Muriel Spark, Wherever You Go is very much a post-modern novel—spare, unsentimental, and all too often "spot on."

The three protagonists of the novel are young American Jews, whom Leegant portrays with all of the complexity and contradictions that characterize that segment of humanity today. Yona Stern lives in Manhattan and divides her time between working unenthusiastically in an art gallery and sleeping with a long string of married boyfriends. These relationships are the result of a debilitating sense of low self-esteem which dates back some ten years, from failed attempts to launch a career in art and a one-off sexual tryst with the husband of her "perfect" and "highly principled" sister, Dena. Yona comes to Israel to seek forgiveness and a reconciliation with her estranged sister, who has since become someone whom Leegant portrays as a Kach-style 'extreme rightwing ideologue' living in an 'illegal West Bank outpost.' Readers will either applaud or abhor the depiction of Yona's sister, depending upon their own political perspectives. No one, however, will be able to fault the letter-perfect accuracy of her description of the settlement, or of the sister's home and family.

The two other main characters are equally three-dimensional and fascinating. Mark Greenglass was a drug addict holed up in a dingy East Village apartment in New York until his also-addicted girlfriend, child of Holocaust survivors, brings him to Orthodox Judaism and transitory redemption. He now lives in Jerusalem as a teacher of Talmud and Torah. His religious fervor suddenly ceases, however, departing as quickly as it had earlier appeared. He visits New York, stays with his parents—whose rigid secularism could almost be described as 'orthodox'—and tries to salvage what is left of his girlfriend, now more dead then alive. Greenglass returns to Jerusalem and a probable life of outward observance without any inner religious conviction.

Aaron Blinder—and here, Leegant could have come up with a less obvious surname—is a college dropout, a failure in school and in his social relationships, and the son of a father who shows Aaron nothing but contempt. In futile hopes of romance, he follows a girl to Israel for a semester abroad program in Jerusalem. Predictably, he drops out of the program, fails to win the heart of the girl, and ends up being drawn to what Leegant depicts as a fringe group of rightwing zealots in the West Bank. He, Greenglass and Yona Stern are all destined to come together in a climax episode of violence and tumult.

But not before Leegant creates three separate narratives that she weaves together only toward the very end of the story. Some critics, like Beth Kissileff writing in the Forward, are put off by Leegant's deliberately disjointed narrative: "Moving between the stories of three separate individuals—Yona Stern, Mark Greenglass and Aaron Blinder—the structure of Wherever You Go can be hard to follow. Just when a reader becomes absorbed in one character's story, the novel cuts to another." I, however, admired Leegant's skillful transitions between one well-crafted narrative and other, and enjoyed the way she almost seems to be teasing the reader as she pauses each story to take up the thread of another.

Aside from that, there is the strength of brutal honesty. This is not the sort of self-indulgent book we love to read that makes us glad to be in Israel, proud to be Jewish, and self-congratulatory about how special we are. Like such novels as Henry Roth's Call it Sleep, Budd Schulberg's What Makes Sammy Run and Mordecai Richler's The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, Leegant's Wherever You Go is a depiction of Jews we would never accept from anyone but a fellow Jew, with the proverbial warts and all.

No warm, lovably exasperating Jewish mother stands kvetching at a kitchen stove, making blintzes. No wise, inordinately perceptive old man dispenses wit and wonderful sayings from behind the counter of a grocery store. Instead, Israeli cabdrivers scream and curse while weaving murderously through traffic. West Bank settlers live drab lives in shabby little outposts. Fringe groups of ideologues recruit aimless, unstable youths and either plan or support acts of reckless violence. In all cases, Leegant's ear for dialogue and eye for verisimilitude are invariably flawless.

Leegant goes out on her longest limb and takes her biggest risks with her portrayal of Aaron Blinder's father, a popular hack writer of one bestselling novel after another. But like Zane Grey and Louis l'Amour, who endlessly mined the Old American West for their numerous cowboy and Indian novels, Blinder's father shamelessly mines the Holocaust. Dipping into the well again and again, he produces a five-foot shelf of increasingly melodramatic and historically far-fetched novels. All the while, he lovelessly brings up his inevitably deranged son Aaron with endless shouts of, "Never again!" If Leegant can be said to have any glaring failings—as far as the crafting of the novel is concerned—it is her one-dimensional, almost cardboard depiction of Aaron Blinder's father. No one could be that detestable—not even a writer!

And yet, for all of its dark candor, Wherever You Go is ultimately a positive novel. What should happen to each of the characters eventually does happen. Love comes to those who seem to deserve it, justice overtakes those who have it coming to them, and Israel shows that it is a country of neither extremists nor fools. If this thoughtfully-conceived, well-written novel demonstrates nothing else, it is that we do indeed live in a enthralling country during quite interesting times. 

 

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