The Days of Awe
By Hugh Nissenson
Sourcebooks, 320 pages, $18.
Hugh Nissenson is not the kind of writer who publishes a book a year. He doesn’t even publish one per decade. But when Nissenson does commit ink to page, he always engages the big issues. He’s ever ready to examine different pockets of American life, challenge God, critique modernity, put Israel under the microscope, interrogate religion. In “The Days of Awe” Nissenson is true to form, setting the novel in Manhattan during the fateful summer and fall of 2001.
But this is not a 9/11 novel. The terrorist attack on the Twin Towers is merely a subplot, and just one of many. The main story is a love tale about 67-year-old Artie Ruben, a writer and illustrator of obscure myths, and his wife, Johanna, an honest yet shrewd investment broker with a sick heart that beats like an overwound metronome. Nissenson is all sentimentality when it comes to Artie and Johanna’s relationship. While making ham-and-cheese sandwiches for 9/11 relief workers, “Artie’s right hand… grazed Johanna’s left elbow. She smiled. Artie would remember thinking at that moment, this is happiness.”
Though the book is riddled with similar instances of their sappy affection, its more substantive concerns — American Jewish life, Israel, Judaism and terrorism — are treated with intelligent cynicism. In the first chapter, Nissenson satirizes the American Jewish attitude to Israel. A vocal admirer of the country, he makes it one of the book’s leitmotifs. In the opening chapter, Artie is aggrieved by an Israeli raid in Nablus that has claimed two Palestinian children. When he tells Johanna, she responds: “Their poor parents. Leslie and Chris [their daughter and son-in-law] are having dinner with us tonight. I made a reservation at Shun Lee for 8:30.” A few days later, he brings up the attack while dining with friends. “Israel’s at war to the death. Innocent kids get killed in war….” His agent and friend, Adam Jacobson, responds without skipping a beat: “This grilled eel is delicious… I see the oncologist next week.” The point is clear: In Artie’s circles, Israel doesn’t even rank a close second to Asian cuisine.
The novel’s connection to Judaism is more complicated. By borrowing the title of S.Y. Agnon’s book of essays reflecting on the 10 days of repentance between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Nissenson seems to be forewarning readers: This is a story with some religious grit. As Johanna’s health worsens, Artie becomes obsessed with prayer and ritual as a last resort to rescue her from the clutches of disease. Still, Nissenson is not one to legitimize faith, and in the long run, Artie understands that if there is a God, he is not in the business of doing anybody any favors. In this book, religion is little more than a way to unleash repressed guilt and savor impossible hopes.
Nissenson never has shied away from experimenting with the conventions of the novel, and in “The Days of Awe” he does so by sporadically interrupting the main narrative with the internal dialogue of virtually every character — a device that makes the people in Artie’s world satisfyingly knowable. The modulated cacophony of voices works well and gives Nissenson a way to expose the thoughts of his characters, including a man who jumps from the 102nd floor of the North Tower not long after the first plane plunges into the building.
Nevertheless, the various parts of “The Days of Awe,” though engaging and often ingenious, remain disconnected. The Jewish holidays bracketing the 10 days of repentance remain largely unexplored, which makes the novel’s recognizably Jewish quotient shallow and only superficially part of the main story. And while Nissenson worked to keep September 11 in the background, he may have worked too hard. Artie and Johanna’s relationship never really blends with the catastrophe that is all around them. It is not that Nissenson minimizes 9/11; he just links it to the story through the lives of marginal characters who remain just that — marginal, peripheral to the book’s central narrative. Still, Nissenson is a gutsy novelist and, at the very least, deserves accolades for applying his imagination to the truly unimaginable.
Shana Rosenblatt Mauer writes on contemporary Jewish issues and fiction.