“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.