Andrew Furman is best known for two smart, engaging books of criticism on Jewish-American fiction: “Israel Through the Jewish-American Imagination: A Survey of Jewish-American Literature on Israel” and “Contemporary Jewish American Writers and the Multicultural Dilemma.” In an age when the paragraphs of far too many novice critics are bogged down by pretentiousness and heavy-water theorizing, Furman, to his credit, writes with both insight and clarity. He is equally at home with the movers and shakers of the Jewish-American renaissance (Bellow, Malamud and Roth) and with the likes of recent writers such as Thane Rosenbaum, Rebecca Goldstein and Allegra Goodman.
In his captivating first novel, “Alligators May Be Present,” Furman uses the cover of fiction to spank trendy academic jargon such as “discourse communities,” “sexed subalterns,” “hegemonies,” “biological imperatives,” “phallocentric tropes” “castration anxieties” and “vaginal ‘spaces.’” Granted, academic satire of this stripe is easy — perhaps too easy — but Furman shows that he can also write well-rounded fiction. His descriptions are always densely packed and lyrically driven, whether focused on the aggravations of condo life in South Florida, the secrets of nature revealed in Everglade reserves or the tormented inner landscape of his 28-year-old protagonist, Matt Glassman.
After some shaky years at Penn State, where he underwent mild electroshock treatments for debilitating depression, Matt — given his fragile ego, the last name, Glassman, is hardly accidental — and his wife, Rebecca, begin their respective careers under a broiling South Florida sun. Matt takes a job as the book review editor of the Jewish Weekly Times, a “throwaway” tabloid, while Rebecca teaches classes in literature.
For a long time Matt has wondered about his maternal grandfather, Abe Fishbein, a man who walked out of his Lackawanna, Pa., haberdashery — “on a Wednesday” no less — never to return. Matt was a young boy at the time, and the mystery has haunted him into adulthood. Nobody in the family, including his high-maintenance grandmother, Teenie, will talk about Abe, and Matt is never sure about how to bring up this painful but important subject.
Fast-forward to Irving Shuman, a suntanned, silver-haired man who walks into Matt’s office and who gradually emerges as both Matt’s surrogate grandfather and Abe’s secret sharer. When Abe walked out, he left his car and clothing; what he took, oddly enough, was a pair of binoculars he had used on his birding expeditions. Irving, as it turns out, is also a birder, and when he and Matt meet at an Everglades reserve, birding becomes a metaphor for life, just as the novel’s title is a lively emblem of the psychological dangers that lurk just beneath South Florida’s surface. Push housing developments ever westward, and alligators are likely to lurk just beneath the waters that border golf courses and walkways. Hence the warning put up by real estate agents: Alligators may be present.
As Irving explains how it is that certain birds adapt and endure while others perish, he makes it equally clear how it is that his own life mistakes have made him a first-rate birder but a lonely man. To the young, overly eager Matt, Irving counsels patience until the moment when gigantic wood storks “soar slowly toward their impoundment; they nearly slowed to a stop in midair before splashing down just thirty yards or so in front of them. Matt could hear them clacking their bills as they walked about heavily in the shallows like…. Yes, he decided…. Like stooped elderly men with their hands behind their backs.”
Birds, Irving insists, do not care a fig for us, although we might care for them. What they teach us, however, is that “solitude ruins a man,” just as it has surely ruined him. Like Abe, he walked out of a Lackawanna home, but unlike Teenie, Irving’s wife later committed suicide. As if all this weren’t enough, we learn that Irving is, in reality, a Lackawanna native named Irving Birnbaum. Such revelations, held off until the last possible moment, may not be entirely convincing, but the novel has more than enough memorable moments to warrant our attention. Take, for example, the provocative title that Matt gives to a talk he delivers to a local havurah: “The Shoah Must Go On: Trends in Recent American Jewish Holocaust Fictions,” or a chapter entirely given over to chronicling an elaborate Sunday brunch that combines cracking wise, telling jokes and recounting, yet again, vivid moments of a shared Lackawanna past.
For the most part, Jewish American writers have been more at home in urban settings and among what Saul Bellow once called the life of “mental designs” than they are in nature. Furman’s novel extends these by-now familiar landscapes of the heart to include birding. The result makes “Alligators May Be Present” much more than a collection of cheap laughs about early-bird dinners.
Sanford Pinsker is an emeritus professor of humanities currently living in South Florida. He has never been known to eat an evening meal before 7:30 p.m.
Alligators May Be Present
By Andrew Furman
University of Wisconsin Press, 272 pages, $26.95.