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For a time, that is. If the first half of the memoir is in the tradition of Mark Twain, the second half recalls, literarily speaking, Edgar Allan Poe’s gothic stories. Assigned to interview a victim of American foreign policy in Central America, Claudia discovers Leopoldo, who sells himself as both freedom fighter and hounded refugee from El Salvador. These are lies, but Leoopoldo is a skillful weaver of tales, and Claudia falls in love. She marries him to aid his push for asylum and American citizenship (which grows more pressing in the face of a DUI charge).
As Leopoldo’s hold over her strengthens, he blossoms into a full-blown mon-ster. He drinks, he beats Claudia, he steals and crashes cars, and he verbally harasses and dominates Josh. This is not to mention his homophobia, misogyny and other degeneracy. Leopoldo’s paranoid jealousy precludes Claudia not only from finishing an academic degree but also from working outside the house. The trio’s poverty forces them into a harebrained scheme to build a new house and life together on a friend’s forest land, but this plan quickly collapses. Though Josh and Claudia are malnourished and poorly sheltered throughout the book, only under Leopoldo does this poverty feel like dungeon deprivation.
The book’s depiction of the strange mix of gullibility, radical guilt and fascination that draw Claudia to Leopoldo, and his sadism and domination of her, achieve a ferocious intensity. The mood infects Josh’s return to public school. Bus stop and locker bullies seem less like teenage tormentors than like Leopoldo’s minor demons.
But this background also overshadows the book’s third major plot, Josh’s maturation. His academic success, rediscovery of Judaism, and study in Israel are reported hurriedly, in the wake of Leopoldo’s sudden defeat and departure. Watching his mother being abused leads Josh conveniently to legal work defending survivors of domestic violence; this is admirable, but overly pat. Though Safran shares childhood traumas, they have all been, it seems, resolved. The book’s final pages function mainly to reassure the reader of its author’s happiness. This is too reassuring, and it explains the book’s one stylistic defect: Though Safran is funny, engaging and a great storyteller, he exhibits very little doubt about the past. There is no reckoning with the limits of either memory or perspective. The narrator is utterly insulated from the doubts and craze of his childhood.
Nonetheless, “Free Spirit” is entertaining and moving. John Updike said he felt moved to write “Rabbit, Run,” his harrowing novel of a delinquent husband who leaves a wife and two-year-old, by his annoyance at the romanticized irresponsibility of “On the Road.” Safran’s memoir contains a similar deflationary conservatism, a sense of the horrors alongside American roadways. His Orthodox Judaism, like Updike’s rigid and illiberal Christianity, imposes an order and tradition on an America dangerously diffuse and unaccountable.
But Safran marries those chaotic evils to an older, more naïve American ecstasy. In this, he typifies the post-1960s “baal teshuva” movement of newly Orthodox, who consciously rejected the counterculture’s libertinism and radical politics but also institutionalized its anti-materialistic spirituality and drive for authenticity. Safran seems more aware of this paradox than most. As a result, his memoir clarifies the mixed aftermaths of that latest and most dislocating of America’s religious revivals which we call the ’60s.
Raphael Magarik is a graduate student at the University of California Berkeley, working on English and rabbinic literature.