Veteran magazine writer Daniel Torday’s debut full-length novel starts strong. His parallel narrative, of an aging war hero’s renewed glory and his young admirer’s unquestioning reverence, carries readers’ attention gracefully for a while. But pages accumulate upon pages, and Torday starts making weird choices. Veteran readers quickly see where he’s headed. And I find myself struggling to pick the book up again.
In 1986, Poxl West, who joined the RAF during World War II and later became a Boston-based Shakespeare scholar, publishes Skylock, his memoir of flying sorties over Hamburg. He quickly finds himself thrust into the rare air occupied by luminaries like Elie Wiesel and Primo Levi. Poxl’s nephew, Elijah Goldstein, watching from the sidelines, admires his uncle’s stratospheric rise. But, they both discover, increased renown leads inevitably to increased scrutiny.
Torday runs his narrative along two tracks. In one, he reproduces West’s full text of Skylock. Born Leopold Weisberg in Czechoslovakia between the wars, Poxl wants only to inherit his father’s factory, avoid his mother’s infidelities, and fly open-cockpit aeroplanes. But Anschluss changes his plans. Poxl flees the coming disaster, beginning a years-long pattern of running away. Until one day, during the London Blitz, he finally takes a stand, and joins up.
In the second track, Eli Goldstein recounts the whirlwind surrounding his uncle’s book release. A genuine Jewish war hero! What’s not to love? But as fame increasingly embraces Poxl West, the unprepossessing uncle who introduced Eli to Shakespeare vanishes into the past. Hero worship quickly transitions into resentment as the very triumph that brings Poxl global acclaim estranges him from the family who supported him through lean times.
Young Eli, simultaneously, can’t reconcile his feelings about Uncle Poxl. He extols his uncle to anybody who’ll listen: friends, classmates, Hebrew school peers, complete strangers. He defends Poxl against creeping bourgeois animus. But his own increasing resentment at Poxl’s absence weighs upon him. He cannot admit his feelings, even to himself. The harsh collision between boyhood illusions and reality’s unforgiving existence becomes Eli’s unwanted coming of age.
But if guilt colors everybody’s perceptions, Torday also inflects that theme with issues of time. Poxl, writing his memoir forty years after the war, represents a man outside his era. A scholar of the long-dead, he’s also the last surviving member of his bomber crew. He deals poorly with the living. Eli, recounting events nearly thirty years later, cannot prevent everything he knows now transforming his perceptions of what happened then.
Torday’s premise and theme set such high standards, I feel bad reversing myself and submarining all the praise I’ve previously heaped upon him. But everything happens on exactly the same level. Poxl’s ardent wartime romances, made more urgent by death’s imminent specter, vary little in tone from his midnight bombing runs. Eli’s admiration for his uncle, and his later demand for answers, have the interchangeable uniformity of Mad-Libs.
Seasoned readers feel Torday’s parallel tracks building to an inevitable collision. It’s an axiom older than Sophocles that, the more characters feel one way at first curtain, the more certainly they’ll feel the exact opposite when the final curtain falls. Love must inevitably transition to heartbreak, devotion into disappointment. Torday leaves himself little wiggle room to impress his own creativity into this apparently inevitable arc.
Our final confrontation feels so foreordained that, somewhere beyond page 150, I began skipping huge chunks, trying to reach the destined conclusion. And, sunny gun, I was right. In 1986, Poxl West’s self-imposed tragedy might’ve seemed surprising and sudden. But today’s climate of magazine scandals, Oprah’s Book Club, and deadline journalism brings its own perspective. We’re only left to sort victims from perpetrators, tragic heroes from arrogant postmodern myth-makers.
I’ve religiously avoided spoiling Torday’s climactic reveal, though that probably matters little. Torday, sadly, signposts his destination almost from the beginning. Torday’s early chapters beautifully establish the tension inherent in Jewish identity following the Shoah. His later chapters become fatalistic, inescapable, less an act of art than a phenomenon of gravity. Maybe he put himself into an impossible literary situation. Oh, I just wanted him to do better.