Austin Rat­ner won the 2011 Sami Rohr Prize for Jew­ish Lit­er­a­ture for his first nov­el, The Jump Artist. His new nov­el, In the Land of the Liv­ing, is now avail­able. He will be blog­ging here this week for Jew­ish Book Coun­cil and MyJew­ish­Learn­ing.

Remem­ber Mandy Patinkin’s char­ac­ter Ini­go Mon­toya in The Princess Bride? When Mon­toya was a child, the sto­ry goes, the six-fin­gered man killed his father. He also slashed Montoya’s face, leav­ing him with scars on both cheeks. Mon­toya spends the rest of his life train­ing to exact vengeance on his father’s killer. He prac­tices not only his swords­man­ship but just what he’ll say when he final­ly finds and con­fronts the six-fin­gered man: Hel­lo. My name is Ini­go Mon­toya. You killed my father. Pre­pare to die.”

The main char­ac­ter in my sec­ond nov­el In the Land of the Liv­ing is a boy like that, a boy with a dead father, a boy bent on rec­om­pense and com­mit­ted to its pur­suit for as long as it takes. His prob­lem is that there is no six-fin­gered man to kill. 

Instead, he attempts to res­ur­rect his father in a man­ner of speak­ing — by hew­ing to cer­tain super­hu­man ideals in order to safe­guard his father’s lega­cy from the obliv­ion of the grave. He will brook no fail­ure in his career or his per­son­al life and strives to excel every­body at every­thing (with the excep­tion of phys ed). Any­one and every­one who gets in his way is the six-fin­gered man. 

William Gold­man, the screen­writer of The Princess Bride, has a cyn­i­cal streak. It’s evi­dent in his first nov­el Tem­ple of Gold and it’s evi­dent in the way he wreathes so many ironies into the sen­ti­men­tal­i­ty of The Princess Bride. A lit­tle of that cyn­i­cism comes out when Ini­go Mon­toya actu­al­ly does con­front the six-fin­gered man. His life­long search has come to an end at last, and Mon­toya deliv­ers his prac­ticed line, Hel­lo. My name is Ini­go Mon­toya. You killed my father. Pre­pare to die.” He bat­tles his ene­my by sword as planned, but the six-fin­gered man appears to defeat him. Mon­toya slumps back­ward, mor­tal­ly wound­ed, and gives up with a line that still sucks the air from my lungs: Sor­ry, Father. I tried.” It doesn’t seem to be Ini­go Mon­toya the man that’s defeat­ed then; it’s the boy who took on a task that was much too big for him out of love for the father that should have been there to help him.

Being a feel-good Hol­ly­wood movie, Mon­toya of course fights back from the edge of defeat. But in a way, what fol­lows is even more cyn­i­cal. The six-fin­gered man begs for his life. He promis­es Mon­toya any­thing he wants in exchange for mer­cy and Mon­toya answers, I want my father back, you son of a bitch,” and he kills the six-fin­gered man. 

He doesn’t fail his father after all, but because he can’t have the one thing he wants — for his father to be alive — he does in a sense fail him­self. He asks his friend what he ought to do with his life now that his quest is over, and when his friend sug­gests he become a pirate, it seems ridicu­lous even accord­ing to the unre­al, comedic laws of Hol­ly­wood fan­ta­sy. With his face alone, Mandy Patinkin smug­gles into the scene a look of haunt­ing ennui before the com­e­dy-romance car­ries on with its mer­ry business. 

My book, In the Land of the Liv­ing, is a pret­ty fun­ny book — it needs to be, to bal­ance out the tragedy at the core of it — but it’s no Hol­ly­wood com­e­dy. It’s a real­ist nov­el, and its pro­tag­o­nist doesn’t have the option of sail­ing away as the Dread Pirate Roberts, much as he’d like to. The land of the liv­ing is a less for­giv­ing place than the land of The Princess Bride. Nei­ther the death of the six-fin­gered man nor sui­cide solve the prob­lem of grief. The only way for­ward is to fig­ure out how to live a good life. And that is where my main character’s odyssey begins. Off he goes through grave­yards and hos­pi­tals, lov­ing and los­ing, trav­el­ing with his broth­er from L.A. to Cleve­land in search of an answer to the ques­tion of how to live. 

I think of it as a mod­ern-day Don Quixote. In Part I, I used chap­ter titles that sat­i­rize medieval romance just as Cer­vantes did. It’s a nov­el that pur­pose­ly dwells in an unsta­ble region between com­e­dy and tragedy, dream and real­i­ty, which is to say that it dwells in the real world, where the laws of nature are unyield­ing, and the human heart unflagging.

Check back on Thurs­day for more from Austin Rat­ner.

Austin Rat­ner is author of the nov­els In the Land of the Liv­ing and The Jump Artist, win­ner of the Sami Rohr Prize for Jew­ish Lit­er­a­ture, and the non-fic­tion book The Psychoanalyst’s Aver­sion to Proof. He is an M.D., stud­ied at the Iowa Writ­ers’ Work­shop, and he teach­es cre­ative writ­ing at the Sack­ett Street Writ­ers’ Work­shop in New York.