In the Land of the Living

  • Review
By – January 25, 2013

Like his first nov­el, The Jump Artist, which won the 2011 Sami Rohr Prize for Jew­ish Lit­er­a­ture, Austin Ratner’s sec­ond nov­el, In the Land of the Liv­ing, is a pre­cise­ly detailed and rich­ly tex­tured sto­ry of a father-son rela­tion­ship pow­er­ful enough to tran­scend the father’s death. But while the for­mer nov­el cen­tered on a unique, bizarre, his­tor­i­cal scan­da — in which a teenag­er named Philippe Hals­man was accused by an anti-Semit­ic Aus­tri­an court of mur­der­ing his father while they were hik­ing in the alps in 1928 — Ratner’s more recent effort, In the Land of the Liv­ing, traf­fics in much more quo­tid­i­an, if equal­ly sad, events. In it, Isadore Auberon, son of a poor, Yid­dish-speak­ing immi­grant, makes his way from a hard­scrab­ble Cleve­land child­hood to Har­vard Col­lege, and then onwards to med­ical school and mar­riage with a love­ly woman, only to die far too soon, of an awful degen­er­a­tive dis­ease, when his eldest son, Leo, is only three years old.

Though these events don’t rise above the lev­el of ordi­nary tragedies, Leo, the cen­tral con­science of the nov­el, under­stands them as the stuff of myth and leg­end. The nov­el begins with an epi­graph about fil­ial duty from Ovid, and then ranks Leo’s father, Isadore, among great heroes of his­tor­i­cal nar­ra­tive, such as Alexan­der the Great, King David, or King Arthur. The chap­ter titles in the novel’s first sec­tion, which nar­rate Isadore’s life, bear grandil­o­quent, medieval-ish titles in small caps: for exam­ple, part of the the title of a chap­ter about an unsuc­cess­ful col­lege date reads OF ISIDORE’S QUEST FORDAMOSEL FOR TO MAKEHOME AND HOW HE GREW NIGH WEARY OF IT. In this sense, Ratner’s approach to the semi-auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal bil­dungsro­man echoes the one tak­en by writ­ers like Harold Brod­key and Thomas Wolfe before him; he gilds the every­day­ness of the sto­ry with ele­vat­ed, extra­or­di­nary lan­guage and a sense of lit­er­ary ambi­tion that refus­es to allow the sto­ry, no mat­ter how nor­mal, to be plain.

As the book turns from Isadore’s life to Leo’s, in its sec­ond and third sec­tions, it describes a seri­ous, depressed young man who feels he must per­son­al­ly undo the tragedy of his father’s death, for which he blames him­self, through his own suc­cess­es. Thus he encoun­ters the chal­lenges of a child of the 80s — not find­ing a girl who wants to kiss him, rejec­tion by Ivy League col­leges despite per­fect grades — with con­sid­er­ably more seri­ous­ness than is typ­i­cal, because he believes his strength of char­ac­ter” and great career” are required as resti­tu­tion against his father’s death.” Which is, of course, a recipe for his see­ing him­self as a mis­er­able failure.

Even Leo’s rela­tions with his fam­i­ly are strained by the pres­sure he puts on him­self, and the final sec­tion of the nov­el describe a road trip he takes with his broth­er Mack, from San Fran­cis­co back to their child­hood home in Cleve­land, work­ing out their enmi­ty on the way. Leo is ulti­mate­ly a young man who despite many advan­tages — intel­li­gence, good looks, a step­fa­ther who both adores him and has the means to care for him — takes every­thing very hard. He hasn’t, in short, sort­ed out how to be a man with­out a father. To what degree this fic­tion is a por­trait of the author — who shares at least some of Leo’s expe­ri­ences — I don’t know, even though I have had a beer or two with Rat­ner and am thanked in his acknowl­edg­ments for help­ing him with a quote from the Yid­dish trans­la­tion of King Lear. But I do know that there’s almost no more cen­tral and char­ac­ter­is­tic trope of mod­ern Jew­ish lit­er­a­ture than the son attempt­ing to carve out space for him­self in the shad­ow of his father, and In the Land of the Liv­ing offers a pre­cise, dark­ly lyri­cal take on the con­test of fil­i­a­tion as it has con­tin­ued to shape Jews’ lives into the present. 

A Kvetchy Correspondence

Read Austin Rat­ner’s Posts for the Vis­it­ing Scribe

A Nov­el About Ear­ly Childhood

Josh Lam­bert (web/twit­ter) is the Sophia Moses Robi­son Asso­ciate Pro­fes­sor of Jew­ish Stud­ies and Eng­lish, and Direc­tor of the Jew­ish Stud­ies Pro­gram, at Welles­ley Col­lege. His books include Unclean Lips: Obscen­i­ty, Jews, and Amer­i­can Cul­ture (2014), and The Lit­er­ary Mafia: Jews, Pub­lish­ing, and Post­war Amer­i­can Lit­er­a­ture (2022).

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