"The Treatment," by Daniel Menaker. Knopf. 266 pages. $23.
Daniel Menaker understands that the best comedy can contain great sadness -- portray it, embrace it, transcend it. His exceedingly funny and moving "The Treatment" commences like vintage Saul Bellow by way of the young Philip Roth.
Our hero is Jake Singer, an English teacher for a posh New York City prep school and deep in the thrall of five-days-a-week
therapy sessions with his analyst, the exquisitely eccentric Dr. Morales -- "the short, bald, muscular, black-bearded Catholic Hispanic tyrant-genius of East Ninety-third Street."
Jake is single, lonely, estranged from his father; prone to sarcasm and depression, he feels stuck in his life. Dr. Morales is an exiled Cuban with an imperious ego, a penchant for tortured metaphors about life("being a Wise Guy along the superhighway may be a good place to stop and have a soda pop, and it may be a more congenial environment than the twin cities of Anxiety and Depression, but it is not the same as the destination ofMaturity") as well as blithe malapropisms ("I have told you how important it is to be frank and candid about sexual matters, but here you are still the croquette"). Morales is determined to shake Jake out of his despair.
Morales' strategy - what Jake refers to as "the treatment" -- is to bully and harass his patient out of morose self-absorption, but Jake begins to find his own remedy in the form of Allegra Marshall, a widowed socialite whose son attends Jake's school.
They meet, have sex out of quick, mutual neediness, and fall in love, despite Dr. Morales' warning that Jake and Allegra are moving too fast -- as Morales phrases it, Jake is putting "a mat of welcome down for depression." Instead, Jake is exhilarated and emboldened by his new romance.
But Menaker, for many years a fiction editor at the New Yorker and the author of two collections of cold-apple-crisp short stories, has a crucial subplot to introduce. Allegra's adopted daughter, the almost-2 Emily, has a birth mother out there looking for her, and Menaker slowly, steadily builds our interest in this anguished woman, Sarah, until we aren't quite sure where to place our sympathy. Jake finds himself in the middle of what becomes a dangerous custody battle (at one point, Sarah's new husband pulls a gun on Jake); he saves his skin, but almost loses his sanity, even as he quite sensibly comes to the realization that "this whole thing is held together by sadness."
Menaker's novel is held together by both the sadness and the joy of complicated relationships (romantic and professional). If it is Oedipally inevitable that Jake will turn on Morales to insist that he has cured his own life more in spite of rather than because of the doctor ("Do not patronize me, Mr. Singer, as if I were a #F plumber in beeb overhauls who had fixed up your backed-up toilet for you," snaps the hurt Morales. "Do not toss over your shoulder some decayed bone such as 'You were right about her' and 'You have done such a good job'"), "The Treatment" is finally a humane comedy in which everyone makes his or her own breakthrough.
Ken Tucker is critic-at-large for Entertainment Weekly, where he writes about television, movies, books and music. He was a critic for the Philadelphia Inquirer from 1982 to 1989, and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism in 1985.
Pub Date: 5/31/98