Now You See It… Stories from Cokesville, PA
By Bathsheba Monk
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 240 pages, $22.
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Cokesville, Pa., is a gritty fictional American shtetl. It is populated by Polish-Catholic émigrés and anchored by the steel mills in which they are employed. It is a place both defined and defeated by the customs of the Old World.
Bathsheba Monk was born and raised in a small Pennsylvania town similar to Cokesville; her grandfather, a coal miner. It is this experience that she draws on in her debut collection, “Now You See It… Stories from Cokesville, PA,” 17 linked short stories told mostly in the wry voice of young Annie Kusiak. But in addition to the inspiration offered by her native town, Monk has plumbed the time she spent exploring Judaism while living in Israel. Through her studies at a Yeshiva in Jerusalem and her relationships with Israelis, her connection to Judaism translates into engaging and profound moments in which people attempt to transform their identities — or cling to them — at the expense of their happiness.
Cokesville is a place where the American dream is dulled by pollution and bankrupted by the harsh economics of living from paycheck to paycheck. When one character learns that the steel mill will close a few months shy of his retirement, he jumps into a vat of molten steel; the company sends an ingot to replace the body at the funeral. “No one was surprised to see an ingot in the casket instead of Bruno. Accidents happened all the time at the plant, and people found it as normal to view a ‘Made in the USA’ stamp on a slab of steel as it was to view a face made up with lipstick to meet its maker.”
Although all her characters grapple with multilayered identities, the work turns especially complex when Annie leaves Cokesville to attend college in Boston. After a half-hearted suicide attempt, the reader learns that Annie is grieving over her breakup with her Jewish boyfriend, who declared that he “needed to marry a Jewish girl.” Annie eventually realizes that it’s not Ben whom she misses, but “being with a nice Jewish man who gave me entrée into a special and defined club. Jews were a definite thing. They ate gefilte fish, the most horrible food on the face of the earth, and they all knew it, but they stuck by it, because it was their fish. I liked that kind of loyalty. They questioned everything: right and wrong, the nature of God who could treat His chosen to such an astounding variety of cruelty, which they accepted as proof of His special attention to them. God was with them. I wanted to be part of a people who had access to that kind of attention.”
Annie soon learns that converting to Judaism involves more than declaring loyalty to a particular man and the fish he eats. Monk’s razor-sharp wit melds humor that stops short of clichés with a blunt portrayal of identity politics. The rabbi instructs Annie and an older woman — a devout Polish Catholic who is obeying a dream she had in which she was ordered to convert to Judaism — in Jewish law and the role of their fellow Poles in the Holocaust. His lessons exasperate Annie, who “only wanted an identity. Why was he making it so grisly?”
In a crisp, clear voice, Bathsheba Monk continuously explores the ongoing effect that “living the unexamined life” has on her characters and on the world around them. By the final story in the collection, most of Annie’s generation has moved to places where “you can actually see the sunset. It’s not a tired orange ball falling into a bowl of soup.” Still there’s no place like home, even if it is an America “that hates ignorance, hates excess, and hates misery, yet unwittingly nourishes all three.”
Judy Bolton-Fasman, a research associate at the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute, is at work on a memoir about the year she said Kaddish.