Landsman is an extraordinary novel, full of surprises up to the crushing, wrenching end, breaking new ground in its depiction of Jewish life in Louisiana during the Civil War. Protagonist Elias Abrams is the illegitimate son of an indentured woman and an exploitative Jewish cotton broker and property owner. Abrams is shadowed during most of his twenty years by a former fellow inmate of the Jewish Widows and Orphans Home, Silas Wolfe (the Landsman). Both become tough street fighters, gamblers, carousers, and petty criminals; they affiliate with a notorious gang of thugs. The plot centers around a mysterious murder both are involved in. Following that event, Wolfe assumes leadership of the gang, while Abrams, smitten with guilt and wishing to evade the law as well as that gang, enlists in the Louisiana Army. Through a New Orleans rabbi and Abrams’ superior officer, he is put in touch with a young Jewish woman from a prominent family, begins corresponding with her, and they fall in love. After a bruising battle and a close brush with death, he is furloughed back to New Orleans, determined to woo the girl and share his great expectations with her. Here the plot takes strange, unpredictable turns, which result in Abrams’ need to remake himself utterly and, again, do or die. Melman’s range of literary styles includes coarse street talk, elegant Victorian prose, ministerial rhetoric (Jewish and Christian), love letter correspondence, soliloquies by Abrams’ dead mother, discourses on Greek cultural lore, and topographical descriptions of New Orleans. Landsman is, finally, a rare experience.
Samuel I. Bellman is professor emeritus at California State Polytechnic University of Pomona. He has been writing on Jewish American writers since 1959.