Matthew Stone is alone on Earth now. Since his imposing father’s death, Stone lacks relations, skills, or purpose, his life circumscribed by the copious library his father, The Judge, bequeathed him. But when a rogue rabbi and a zealous g-man pressure Stone to relinquish secrets even he doesn’t know, he realizes his father concealed untold power deep within his beloved books. Now he races to liberate family secrets before they imprison him.
One back-cover blurb describes Jonathan Papernick as “an utterly original writer,” which is palpably untrue. Seasoned readers will recognize the same Jewish literary heritage that nourishes David Mamet, Jonathan Lethem, and countless less-famous writers. Papernick’s story isn’t even original to Jonathan Papernick; this novel is a reworked re-release of Who By Fire, Who By Blood, by “Jon” Papernick. This book follows trails already familiar and well-respected.
Don’t misunderstand me. Though Papernick participates in Jewish literary tradition, he doesn’t merely obey it. Like his protagonist, he darts into and out from tradition, suddenly religious, now humanist; alternately separatist and assimilated; militantly Hebrew and steadfastly Anglophone. He uses tradition without ever feeling anchored to it. Thus, Papernick’s story frequently feels familiar without ever becoming common. What readers receive will reflect what they expect.
Stone comes from deeply mixed birthright. His grandfather Julius Stone reputedly served as triggerman for the notorious Brownsville Mafia. Julius’ son Walter Stone rejected Julius, studied law, and became The Judge. But The Judge was reputedly corrupt, doctoring cases to let fellow Jews walk. And after The Judge’s death, it appears he funneled money to violent Zionist organizations, possibly using Julius’ old connections. Connections hidden in Stone’s bequest of books.
Deep among Stones secrets lies Fairuza. Following a rather self-indulgent collegiate breakdown, The Judge packed Stone off to a West Bank kibbutz, thinking time spent in the Homeland would cure Stone’s vapors. But Stone fled to Jerusalem, where he romanced Fairuza, a beautiful Palestinian Christian, embodiment of everything The Judge despises. Stone could’ve defied The Judge, but didn’t; Fairuza’s faith after Stone’s return to America proves his biggest guilt, and most powerful secret.
Papernick’s publisher markets this novel as a “thriller,” which perhaps isn’t altogether true, considering how Papernick’s cerebral storytelling somewhat mutes his story’s thrills. Papernick writes deliberately, thoughtfully, more interested in characters’ motivations than cinematic display. This cultivates dawning awareness rather than shocking jolts. Despite his gangland milieu, Papernick clearly prefers guiding audiences to deep revelations, than peppering us with sudden explosions.
This tone requires certain trade-offs. Anyone buying this novel expecting James Patterson-ish plot-driven commotion will find Papernick’s style confounding. Protagonist Stone (consistently addressed thus, “Stone”) spends early chapters enrapt in long, wretched self-pity. He requires nearly a quarter of this book’s considerable mass to overcome inertia and begin unpacking The Judge’s riddles—though that quarter proves immensely valuable later. Getting into this book requires some effort.
Persistent readers will find this book rewards such investments with generous dividends. Stone finds himself inheriting the nexus of a transnational conspiracy that should’ve been his father’s responsibility. Forced into his father’s footsteps, the path he’s always avoided, Stone begins reevaluating everything he’s ever believed, including himself. Reality, as Stone knows it, proves to be a massive edifice of lies; I didn’t mention David Mamet frivolously earlier.
If the review volumes I’ve received accurately reflect the larger publishing world, 2015 is proving the Year of the Jew. I’ve received three times as many Jewish-themed books in 2015 to date as I’ve received since I began reviewing. But this trend isn’t uniformly self-congratulatory. Besides giddy autobiographical novels and laudatory histories, I’ve read apostasy memoirs, novels of deceit, and this often-opaque tale of self-loathing and ethnic violence.
This novel doesn’t reveal its secrets lightly, not to its protagonist, and not to us. It resists casual beach reading. But for readers willing to brave Papernick’s densely plotted writing—and his annoyingly low-key tone—will find a story reflecting Jewish America’s, and all America’s, struggles between tradition and individuality. Don’t undertake this novel flippantly. It demands big sacrifices from intellectually engaged readers, but offers generous rewards and vast insights in return.