● The Tin Horse
By Janice Steinberg
Random House, 352 pages, $26
At 85, Elaine Greenstein Resnick, “a brisk, no-bullshit woman” who worked as a civil rights attorney, is downsizing as she prepares to enter a retirement community. The University of Southern California, which wants her papers, has provided an eager young archivist to help her sort through old boxes and files.
And so the stage is set for the discovery that will drive the plot of “The Tin Horse:” Josh, the archivist, finds a name and address scrawled on the back of a private detective’s business card. (The detective is none other than Philip Marlowe, an iconic borrowing from Raymond Chandler.)
Those scraps of information will launch Elaine on a journey into the past that will expose both old family secrets and the emotional vulnerabilities beneath her tough surface.
In simple, clear prose, “The Tin Horse” ably tackles issues common to novels about immigrant life: tensions between cultural tradition and assimilation; the enduring, sometimes stifling power of family ties; the constraints imposed by gender.
Janice Steinberg is interested in the variable strands of Jewish identity — and of identity in general. The novel’s most powerful theme is the mystery of human personality, a mystery that can’t finally be solved.
Steinberg (whose previous five books have, in fact, been mysteries) is adept at creating a page-turning narrative that moves almost seamlessly between past and present, as though mirroring its protagonist’s memories. That form has its drawbacks, though; sometimes, Steinberg gives away too much.
But the desire to understand how and why the book’s relationships ignite or fizzle keeps us reading. And Steinberg evokes the Los Angeles community of Boyle Heights, in its melting-pot heyday of the 1920s and ’30s, with engaging authenticity.