Lipshitz Six, or Two Angry Blondes
By T Cooper
Dutton, 416 pages, $24.95.
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Things are not what always what they seem in the world of T Cooper. To begin with, there is the title of her second novel, “Lipshitz Six, or Two Angry Blondes.” This sort of giddy riffing, where subsequent clauses are meant to modify the first one to ironic effect, will likely remind the historically minded reader of Stanley Kubrick’s satire, “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.” Even so, you’d be wrong to detect ironic intentions. Cooper’s title is meant literally; this is a linear map to twisted regions, a schematic drawing to a Chinese puzzle. Why? Because the real sense of play is in the novel’s form and approach.
“Lipshitz Six, or Two Angry Blondes” is two books for the price of one. The first three-quarters is a highly absorbing tale of turn-of-the-century Jewish immigrants, while the last 100 or so pages spin off into what might be called the gender-bending celebrity memoir. Notwithstanding the novel’s significant virtues, and there are several, the question of how well readers enjoy the book depends on how they manage to bridge the radical shift between both stories.
Then again, maybe radical shift is exactly the point when it comes to re-creating the life and times of 19th-century Eastern European Jews. “Lipshitz Six” begins in 1907, just as the eponymous Russian family — the parents, Hersh and Esther, and a brood of four — has survived a torturous Atlantic crossing and been deposited into the maw of Ellis Island. Worse than the huddled masses or hostile officials is that in the commotion of disembarking, Esther and Hersh lose track of their youngest, Reuven, an atypically blond and blue-eyed 5-year-old. While Esther frantically searches for her missing son, her husband, a well-meaning but ineffectual clod, worries about stirring up trouble for the family.
Of course, the difference in the couple’s approach is symbolic of the greater struggles in their marriage; their rift, as well as the child’s disappearance, echoes endlessly throughout the balance of the novel. More than anything else, this is Esther’s story, and the novel lingers lovingly in her head as events shift back in time to the terrible pogroms in the Ukraine, or forward to the family’s changed fortunes in Amarillo, Texas.
Despite the historical setting, Esther is a modern, headstrong woman — like one of Anzia Yezierska’s creations, though less emotionally encumbered. At least for the first part of the story. Eventually, Esther’s independent streak gives way to furtive monomania as she tries to locate her lost Reuven. She believes she sees him everywhere, on the street, in news reports of a boy lost in a cave — but especially in the sudden appearance of a fair-headed, blue-eyed trans-Atlantic superstar, Charles Lindbergh. We keep abreast of Lindbergh’s triumphs and tragedies, especially the infamous killing of his baby boy, as Esther does, through a litany of news clippings and a few of the hundreds of letters she writes to Lindbergh and his circle.
Though her story dominates the novel, Esther isn’t the only fully realized character. One of the author’s strong suits is her people, and she keeps their multiple storylines juggled in the air. There’s Avi, Esther’s shrewd, pragmatic brother, whose earthy marriage to the luscious Ruth feels particularly believable. Equally compelling is Ben, Esther’s eldest son, who shields his emerging gay identity from his family. Unfortunately, the novel leaves him dangling a bit, and this reader wished his story had been developed further.
Things might simply have ended with Esther’s death if it weren’t for the book’s strange coda. Shifting abruptly to New York City in the present decade, we meet 30-year-old T Cooper, the last of the Lipshitzes. Like the real-life T Cooper, this literary doppelganger is also an author, but one who dreams of giving up writing for an increasingly successful career as a bar mitzvah rapper and impersonator of the hip-hop star Eminem. First, however, this prodigal son must clear up family affairs in Texas, in the wake of a freak car accident that claims the lives of his parents.
If the use of masculine pronouns is causing confusion, that’s because there is plenty of gender-bending going on here. Perhaps taking a cue from Eminem’s own ambiguously titled autobiography, “Angry Blonde,” this T Cooper talks like a man but walks like a…well, you’ll have to see for yourself.
In an added postmodern twist, we’re left guessing about where fiction ends and real life picks up, as this section is also studded with photographs of the real-life T Cooper, scrawled notes in her handwriting, even a Publishers Weekly review of her first novel. All of which might be intended to be an amusing commentary on the nature of celebrity culture and on our notions of what the increasingly blurry line is between reality and fiction. Yet for all its inventive blurring, the final section of “Lipshitz Six” feels less realized than the earlier one. The fictional T Cooper tries to evoke not only the charm and insouciance of Holden Caulfield, but also devil-may-care swagger of Eminem’s “Slim Shady” persona, but the voice never fully coheres — making it hard to care too much about him.
Nonetheless, there may be at least one theme that unites these two unlikely stories. At its best, “Lipshitz Six” is a haunting look at the legacy of lost children — those who go missing, those who are murdered, or those who are simply lost to themselves through neglect. Cooper is best when she levels her steady gaze on them, as she does early on in part one, in the harrowing aftermath of a pogrom. Which is to suggest not that she limit her experimental streak — she’s too good and too ambitious a novelist for that — but simply that these parts are greater, not less than, the whole.
Paul Zakrzewski, who edited the anthology “Lost Tribe: Jewish Fiction From the Edge” (Perennial, 2003), is a critic and writer in Pennsylvania.