June 30, 2008

At 166 pages, "The Book of Getting Even" is a mortar shot of a novel -- the trajectory is steep, the narrative moves at tremendous velocity and the book ends with a bang. Yet it also is a bittersweet and redemptive love story, richly decorated and recounted with the deepest insight and compassion for the workings of the human heart.

The story told by Benjamin Taylor ("Tales Out of School"), editor of an upcoming collection of the letters of Saul Bellow, is essentially a love triangle set in the tumultuous decade of the 1970s. As a freshman at Swarthmore, Gabriel Geismar meets fraternal twins Daniel and Marghie Hundert; he falls for Danny, and Marghie falls for him. Yet the martial metaphor is appropriate if only because Gabe is at war with his own father, a sanctimonious pulpit rabbi in New Orleans, and the Hundert family is so deeply conflicted that it is nearly fissionable.

Gabe, as it turns out, falls even more deeply in love with Gregor (Grisha) and Lilo Hundert than with their son. The Hundert family is brilliantly evoked in a few deft words that allow us to glimpse much of what is not spoken aloud. Gabe, in fact, is destined to serve as rescuer and vindicator of the Hundert family in ways that he (and we) could not have imagined when he first encounters the twins in a noisy dormitory.

That Gabe is gay is presented without much angst or melodrama. "Any mention of the word 'man' stirred him," the author writes of Gabe's discovery of his sexual preference. "Even a copy of Reinhold Niebuhr's 'The Nature and Destiny of Man,'found one afternoon on his father's highest shelf, had merited fifteen seconds of browsing."

Perhaps even more crucial in his period of adolescent self-definition is his discovery of science: "At thirteen, the rabbi's son had entered a stationer's on Calliope, plunked down his money, and ordered a supply of engraved letterhead reading GABRIEL GEISMAR, COSMOLOGIST," we are told. "He knew what was his to do."

Here, too, we glimpse why "The Book of Getting Even" is a work of literary fiction in the best sense. To be sure, Taylor assumes that his readers are well and widely read, but he also writes with the ease, lucidity and drama of an authentic raconteur; he insists on using the word "forfend" as a verb rather than in an exclamation, for example, but he also is willing to use the word "noogie" when it is called for.

But he is never merely showing off; rather, he is displaying his own love of letters and language while setting the scene for the Hundert family, which is both the beneficiary and the victim of a couple of thousand years of European civilization.

The Hunderts are beguiling and heartbreaking, a family of Hungarian Jews who fled to apparent security and success in America and yet have found themselves in a kind of physical and emotional peril from which there is no real refuge. Grisha, like such real-life figures as Leo Szilard and Edward Teller, sets to work on the Manhattan Project. He ends up winning a Nobel Prize and writes himself into the history of his age.

" Harry Truman never goes out of style at our house," cracks Marghie, thus confirming that history is a nightmare from which the whole family is struggling to awake.

But there are also many moments of pleasure and illumination. Marghie's obsessive discourses on vintage Hollywood movies -- "Lilo looked as if she wished her daughter would choose a profession other than plot summary" -- sent me to my Netflix queue. We learn about the history of the Roma and Sinti, better if less respectfully known as the Gypsies, and their share of grief in the Holocaust in a back story that achieves its own romantic grandeur.

And the musty old tale of Philemon and Baucis is rescued from "Bulfinch's Mythology" and retold in a way that shows the remarkable power of old love, yet another passage in which the literary aspirations of the author are fulfilled.

The saga of the star-crossed Hundert family unfolds across a great swath of the mid-20th century, which Taylor evokes in a richness of recalled detail unhampered by nostalgia, and it would spoil the reader's experience to reveal the plots and counter-plots that play out.

Indeed, like any novel about an afflicted family, the book can be read as a mystery and, at times, a thriller. What Gabe does in Budapest at the bidding of Grisha Hundert, for example, is a scene that surely has never before appeared on the printed page. At the end, we are sadder but wiser, and yet somehow comforted too -- signs that we are in the hands of a gifted storyteller.

Jonathan Kirsch is the author of 12 books, including the upcoming "The Grand Inquisitor's Manual: A History of Terror in the Name of God."

The Book of Getting Even

A Novel

Benjamin Taylor

Steerforth: 166 pp., $23.95