Hot, Sweet and Gay in D.C.

Coming of Age as a 21st-Century Jew

By Gordon Haber

Published August 10, 2011, issue of August 19, 2011.
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Sweet Like Sugar
By Wayne Hoffman
Kensington Books, 352 pages, $15

Benjamin “Benji” Steiner, protagonist of Wayne Hoffman’s “Sweet Like Sugar,” is a bundle of contradictions. He’s a proud Jew, but he’s alienated from Judaism. He can’t live without the city — in this case, Washington, D.C. — but he’s content to live and work in the Maryland suburbs. And he wants to settle down, but he dates unsuitable boys: Pete, who compares Israel to Nazi Germany; tattooed Frankie, who thinks that crystal meth is “no big thing,” and Ed from Atlanta, who calls Benji his “little bagel boy.”

All this comes later in the novel. Benji’s real trouble starts on the first page. It’s a swampy D.C. Metro summer, and Rabbi Zuckerman, who owns a Judaica store near Benji’s one-man design studio, needs to lie down on Benji’s office couch, since the gruff old rabbi’s air conditioner is broken. This gives Hoffman the opportunity to present a very promising first line: “I was looking at Internet porn when the rabbi opened my door.” So begins an unlikely friendship that will lead both men to confront their prejudices and deepen their Judaism.

Despite that opening sentence, there’s a welcome mildness about the book. In novels about 20-somethings, there’s always the danger that the author will rub our noses in sex and drugs and booze — decadence masquerading as depth. But Hoffman isn’t out to épater anybody. He’s telling the story of a nice Jewish boy having his quarter-life crisis.

Perhaps “Sweet Like Sugar” is a little predictable. It seems clear that, eventually, Benji will get Rabbi Zuckerman to open up, and the rabbi will get Benji to study Torah. And we can see a confrontation about Benji’s sexual orientation coming like an 18-wheeler down I-495. Still, Hoffman produces some nice twists, and the ending is satisfying. (In the interest of full disclosure, I should admit that I’m a sucker for any story about reconciliation and aging Jews.)

One weakness of the book is that the female characters are unlikable, or flat, or some combination of the two. Michelle, Benji’s roommate and best friend, is exceedingly self-involved. Benji’s mother is a caricature of the caustic-but-touchy Jewish woman. And nobody has much patience for Mrs. Goldfarb, the rabbi’s shop assistant, even though her only evident defect is that she smokes. Only Irene, the rabbi’s high school sweetheart, comes off well. But she, too, is a bit of a caricature, of the sassy, knowing grandmother variety.

Another distraction is that passages about Benji’s formative Jewish experiences are rendered in italics. This attempt at a kind of emphatic dreaminess only pulls the reader away from the story.

But I’d be lying if I said I didn’t like the book. Maybe Hoffman does tie up things a little too neatly; maybe it would have been better to leave Benji with an open question or two. Still, “Sweet Like Sugar” has heart. Don’t tell anybody, but once or twice I even found myself getting a little farklemt.

Gordon Haber is a frequent contributor to the Forward.

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