Not Me

Random House  2005

There are many stories of Jews who survived Hitler’s Germany by assuming the identity of a non-Jew. The premise of this debut novel by Michael Lavigne is the reverse: a Nazi impersonates a Jew.

The narrator is Michael Rosenheim, a 40- ish stand-up comic from Los Angeles whose stage name is Mickey Rose. He has come to a Palm Beach nursing home to attend to his dying father. His narrative voice is humorous, accessible, and draws us in with references to the heat and monotony of the Florida landscape. Michael, who is divorced from his wife and a remote father to his young son, is thrown into further emotional limbo when he is given a mildewed box of his father’s journals. 

The father, now afflicted by Alzheimer’s, was, in his prime, a paradigm of the committed Jew, a tireless contributor to an endless list of Jewish causes. But the journals suggest that he was born German and was once a part of the Nazi machine. As the son slowly reads the journals, he learns of his father’s strange life as a young kibbutznik, at the same time caught up in the struggle for Israel’s independence and filled with a longing to return to Germany. Vicariously reliving the events that gradually altered his father’s perspective and loyalty, he develops an insight into his personal conflicts with his father and his own ambivalence about Judaism.

From the Rohr Judges

What happens when you find out that your family isn’t who you think they are – which, in turn, means that you aren’t who you think you are? Lavigne, who worked in advertising for many years before turning to fiction, knows how to craft a narrative that calls attention to itself from the first pages. When Michael Rosenheim gets his hands on his father Heshel’s journals and begins to read them, he discovers that his father’s personal story is far, far more complex – and potentially much, much darker – than he had ever imagined. Lavigne’s prose is clean, and his sense of voice is gripping – or, perhaps more accurately, voices, as the novel alternates between Michael’s story and Heshel’s account. Saying too much more would give away the plot, and Not Me depends on a sense of mystery: suffice it to say that as a gripping, page-turning narrative that moves easily between America, Israel, and Eastern Europe, between the present day, the Holocaust, and the Israeli War of Independence, Not Me is not an easy novel to put down – or to forget.

Michael Lavigne On...

How He Writes

My writing practice is simple. I write at least three pages a day, five days a week. I am a very undisciplined person, so it’s important for me to create an obligation for myself. However, I never know what I am going to write before I put down the words: I come to the page with only a vague premise, a sense of where I’d like to go. Then I try to get there. I confess I often end up elsewhere. Each surprise forces me to rethink, re-feel, and let go. My work is never autobiographical. The idea of writing about myself or anyone I know is much too limiting,and essentially very dull. My life is not even interesting to me. Facts are nothing but facts. But the world of the imagination is endlessly possible. In that space I am free and extremely happy. I am not saying writing is without pain or boredom, nothing could be farther from the truth. All your emotions come into focus, and this can be very unsettling. When you inhabit the life of the radical other -- in the case of Not Me I was trying to be inside a Nazi officer — you must allow yourself to be that, embrace those hatreds, ugliness, cruelty. What one cannot avoid, and what hopefully is always the outcome, is a real sense of empathy for people you cannot rationally understand. By expressing impulses you cannot embrace in real life, you develop compassion, not just as a writer, but as a person. There’s no changing the world. There’s only changing how it looks.

Discussion Questions

1. How does the nature of memory play an important part in this story? What traps and opportunities does memory create for Michael and for the people around him? 

2. Why do you think the author opted to make Heinrich a bookkeeper as opposed to a Nazi soldier? 

3. What is the role of G-d in this novel?

4. Michael’s relationship with his sister is unique within the novel for its purity and wholesomeness—yet it is this relationship that pushes Michael to commit a terrible crime, and become, in essence, like the man in the journals. What are the moral implications for Michael, for causing destruction in the name of love?

5. April Love is a mysterious woman who keeps popping up in the oddest places, including in bed with a man ten years her junior. What does she represent to you? Why did the author bring her into the story?

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