The Sea Beach Line

  • Review
October 7, 2015

It came to pass that four sages entered Pardes, encoun­ter­ing the divine.” One died. One went crazy. One emerged with per­fect faith; the last with per­fect doubt.

This is a fit­ting start to Ben Nadler’s beau­ti­ful and com­plex sec­ond nov­el. The para­ble is a chal­lenge, not only to Nadler’s flawed yet sym­pa­thet­ic hero Izzy Edel, but also to the read­er. What would hap­pen to you if you met the divine? What kind of stuff are you made of, really?

The aim­less­ness that plagues Izzy, a twen­ty-some­thing col­lege dropout, ends when his moth­er receives two post­cards. One is a draw­ing of a ship sail­ing away sent by her estranged hus­band and Izzy’s dad, Alo­jzy. The sec­ond announces Alojzy’s death. Izzy flies to New York to investigate.

In the city, Izzy finds the remains of Alojzy’s life, a stor­age unit filled with books and draw­ings that Izzy stud­ies like a map to his father’s where­abouts, if only he can deci­pher its leg­end. To do so, Izzy steps into his dad’s life as an out­door book­seller in Wash­ing­ton Square and descends into his father’s crim­i­nal under­world. Nadler, who worked as an out­door book­seller him­self, excels at depict­ing the dai­ly pat­terns and strug­gles of this insu­lar space.

Nadler’s writ­ing often sings, notably when he uses Izzy to chal­lenge con­ven­tion. Talk­ing with his sister’s fiancé, a frat boy invest­ment banker, Izzy won­ders, Gen­er­a­tions of strug­gle and strug­gle had result­ed in what? More bankers, lawyers, and land­lords? What did you get for all that work? A gold watch?” Lat­er, Izzy mus­es, I’d grown up think­ing I had rights[…] My father who had endured the indig­ni­ties of both com­mu­nist Poland and ser­vice to the IDF had tried to dis­abuse me of this notion, but Long Island pro­vides pow­er­ful illu­sion for its inhabitants.”

When a girl Izzy rec­og­nizes from his father’s draw­ings appears at his book-sell­ing table, he knows she’s a sign. Like Izzy, the girl, Rey­na, is dam­aged. But unlike Izzy, who is run­ning head­long into trou­ble, she is des­per­ate­ly run­ning away from it, and the details of her past are the heart of the book’s plot.

Ray­na and Izzy move into Alojzy’s book-filled stor­age unit, lit­er­al­ly liv­ing in a world of words. Their rela­tion­ship is nour­ished by the sto­ries they tell each oth­er, tales spiced with Torah and midrash; of a man who believed he was a pigeon; anoth­er who freezes to death dream­ing of a woman who doesn’t exist; and of the ter­ri­ble choic­es faced by Queen Esther.

As he tries to prove his own worth in the crime ring, Izzy tells him­self sto­ries, too. When I final­ly saw Al again — in this world or the next — I’d have a good sto­ry to tell him, one where I was a char­ac­ter, not just a nar­ra­tor.” We all tell our­selves sto­ries, don’t we? The ques­tion The Sea Beach Line asks us to fig­ure out is which ones real­ly matter.

Relat­ed Content:

Discussion Questions