Not Me

By – November 10, 2011

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.

Judy Lewis, a for­mer high school Eng­lish teacher, is the founder and coor­di­na­tor of two book dis­cus­son groups in Great Neck, New York.

Discussion Questions

From Pen­guin Ran­dom House

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. Dis­cuss the role of place set­ting in this nov­el and in fiction in gen­er­al. How, and why, are places char­ac­ters,” and how does place affect you personally?

3. What kind of per­son is Hein­rich? Do you know any peo­ple like him? Could you be such a person?

4. What feel­ings are aroused in you by the descrip­tions of the con­cen­tra­tion camps and by Heinrich/Heshel’s role in the mur­der of thousands?

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

6. Han­nah Arendt cre­at­ed the phrase the banal­i­ty of evil,” refer­ring to Adolph Eich­mann, the archi­tect of the Nazi death camp sys­tem, and those like Eich­mann who com­mit unspeak­able acts under the guise of just doing their job.” Does Hein­rich fit that description?

7. Do you think it plau­si­ble for a per­son to change as dra­mat­i­cal­ly as Heinrich/​Heshel did? Is it plau­si­ble that some­one like Hein­rich could find sal­va­tion by embody­ing the nature of his enemy?

8. What is the role of God in this novel?

9. Every­one tells lies. Why do we lie to our­selves and oth­ers? What secret knowl­edge do we all car­ry with us? Con­sid­er a time in your life when you have been unsure whether to reveal or to con­ceal an impor­tant truth, and had to choose between the truth shall set you free” and what they don’t know won’t hurt them.” How did you resolve it?

10. Every fam­i­ly has secrets. What are the effects of fam­i­ly secrets and how do they affect Michael’s life? How have they affect­ed yours? What hap­pens when they are uncovered?

11. Part of the plot struc­ture of this nov­el is in the form of a mys­tery or detec­tive sto­ry. Is it suc­cess­ful in sus­tain­ing an aura of sus­pense until the novel’s con­clu­sion? Do you feel the mys­tery of Heshel’s iden­ti­ty has been solved? Why or why not?

12. Is guilt what dri­ves Hes­hel Rosen­heim? If so, what is the true nature of that guilt? If not, what is it that dri­ves him? Do you think guilt itself can be a con­duit to redemption?

13. If Hes­hel Rosen­heim is indeed Hein­rich Mueller, do you think his son should be able to for­give him? Could you for­give him? Can the good that Heshel/​Heinrich has done in his life make up for the bad? What is the role of good works in the bal­ance sheet of redemption?

14. 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?

15. The rela­tion­ships between fathers and sons in this nov­el are ambigu­ous and com­plex. In what ways do they dis­agree on how to live their lives? Which of the gen­er­a­tional dis­agree­ments would you attribute to his­tor­i­cal change, and which to indi­vid­ual char­acter differences?

16. 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?