Lands­man: A Novel

Peter Charles Melman
  • Review
By – December 12, 2011
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.

Discussion Questions