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 FOR A DAMOSEL FOR TO MAKE A HOME 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.