● In the Land of the living
By Austin Ratner
Reagan Arthur Books, 320 pages, $25.99.
In Austin Ratner’s accomplished and moving second novel, “In the Land of the Living,” three generations of Auberon men have been angry.
Erratic and volatile, Isidore’s father raises him with techniques “he’d presumably learned at the Kishinev School of Cossack Child Rearing” — chiefly, bellowing abuse and wielding heavy objects. Isidore himself is not above hurling missiles, and his violent hatred for his father forms the driving passion of his life until his own sons, Leo and Mack, are born, and he finds happiness with his young family. But only briefly. The boys are just 3 and 1, respectively, when Isidore dies.
Parents here cannot be trusted to stay alive for very long. Sons are left to love their parents only through relics: Isidore treasures his mother’s lavender silk blouse; Leo, considerably more ambivalent, keeps Isidore’s inscribed medical textbook and then becomes a doctor himself. At its core, this novel is a study of bereavement and anger and of the complex, shifting seam between them. Anger, contemporary psychologists would have us believe, is merely a brief way station between bereavement and acceptance, but Ratner’s characters understand that it is rarely quite so simple. Leo, who worshipped his father, is ragingly, unquenchably angry deep into adulthood: “Leo wanted to hit [his brother] again and to hit the men who cut the trees down and to hit the stumps for being dead and to hit himself for using dead trees to write on and eating pigs he didn’t have the courage to kill himself and for hitting his brother like a savage and he wished they would just terraform Mars already so everyone could just start over.”
Between these vivid frenzies are flashbacks that introduce a tender, vulnerable voice. In these, Ratner captures 3-year-old Leo with uncanny precision, and his childhood sorrow is convincing and devastating. Leo worries about whether air or food can get to his father: “Don’t worry, Daddy. The others have forgotten, but I will bring you my macaroni and cheese. I didn’t eat all of it. I will save it where no one will find it, behind the bed….”
Ratner won the Sami Rohr Prize for his debut novel, “The Jump Artist,” and his sophomore novel will undoubtedly draw many more accolades. “In the Land of the Living” is sad and clever, resonant with loss and grief.
Francesca Segal is the 2012 winner of the National Jewish Book Award for fiction for her novel “The Innocents” (Hyperion/Voice).