By Marc Estrin
Unbridled Books, 320 pages, $15.95.
For Rabbi Loew, the legendary maker of the original Prague-based golem, his creation was a photographic negative of the studious, passive Jew: muscular rather than atrophied; doltish rather than learned; a man of action, not of words. For Alan Krieger, antihero of Marc Estrin’s novel “Golem Song,” the rabbi is indeed a role model. But rather than craft a helper out of clay, Alan’s goal is to turn himself into a golem of sorts, defending his town (New York City) from the onslaught of Jew haters and potential killers stalking the streets. That no one has asked him to do so, and that most of the threats seem to emerge from within the folds of his own tattered psyche, is beside the point.
The real golem -maker here is not Alan but Estrin. With his third novel, he has found the perfect vessel for his gifts — a relentlessly punning, quoting autodidact, content with no one else gleaning his references to obscure 19th-century operas and Russian literature. Estrin’s gift for bending language finds its ideal agent in Alan the subway kabbalist, lover of learning and amateur vigilante. Alan begins the book as a jovial raconteur, playfully bantering with his lady friends, with his mother, and even with his success-story brother, Walter. Juggling two girlfriends and a stressful job as an emergency-room nurse, Alan seems like a typical casually abrasive New Yorker, fond of the sound of his own voice complaining as a means of letting off steam.
As the book progresses, and Alan’s diatribes gather force, it becomes clear that Alan is more than just a stressed-out professional; one of Estrin’s inspired strategies is allowing his readers to slowly come to grips with their protagonist’s own loose grip on sanity. Charming as Alan may be, he is also a vicious racist, in thought if not yet in action, who sees African Americans as the source of all of American society’s ills, and as the major threat to maintaining Jewish life in New York — if not worldwide.
Alan’s two girlfriends, Jewish social worker Debbie and German psychoanalyst Ursula, both play along with Alan for a while, but his complaints about rap music, crime rates and antisemitic patients grow wearisome, and Ursula bails on him in favor of an African American convert to Judaism. “I’m not your doctor,” she tells him, “but I think you’re bordering on pathological narcissism and just barely holding in your aggression.” Trapped as we are inside Alan’s psyche, his funhouse-mirror version of the city begins to appear genuine — a roiling maelstrom of racial tension and antisemitic hatred. Strolling in the park one weekend afternoon, Alan comes upon a black-nationalist assembly followed in close order by a neo-Nazi rally, with four out of five white and black supremacists agreeing that Jews are the true cause of all their problems. Alan’s patients in the E.R. appear similarly threatening, putting his livelihood and his life in danger. And the fact that Alan has informed one particularly uncooperative patient, while immobilized by a muscle relaxant, that he was due for an impromptu eunuchization, does not enter into his ledgers.
Alan pays verbal obeisance to his new fighting ideal, inspired by the golem of Prague and Israeli soldiers, seeing their muscular Judaism as an escape from the prison-house of words. And yet Alan, whose last name means “warrior” in Yiddish, can do little other than celebrate the supposed splendor of violence via another feverish flight of words: “But hell, why not a new testament — and I’m not talking about Paul’s epileptic ravings and Jesus’s mishegas — I’m talking about the norm of a new kind of Jew, no more bent-over rabbis but patriotic, bronzed warriors, kicking ass and transvaluating values. It’s time for the Viconian age of the post-schlimiel!”
“Alan Krieger… golem of the Grand Concourse, savior of the Jews,” as he describes himself, sees the Jewish mission of healing the broken world as a new, ugly but necessary round of ethnic cleansing, bringing peace to the Jews via genocide: “We need to take on evil where it lives, some bigtime fall cleaning, straighten up the house, even if it means getting messy.” Alan’s racism, which began as merely uncomfortable, descends deeper and deeper into ugliness, bottoming out with this vision of mass genocide of African Americans as a means of saving American, and Jewish, society.
Estrin’s protagonist is a troubling character, delusional but entirely coherent within his own tightly enclosed worldview. “Golem Song” does a fine job of capturing the loping rhythms of Alan’s mindset, which leaps from his craving for a sack of White Castle hamburgers to his musings on the evils of African American culture to Travis Bickle-esque fantasies of murder. It is only once the Joycean wordplay and the buoyant good cheer have lured us inside that we realize we are trapped with a delusional maniac. For this golem, who seeks to defend the promised land of the Grand Concourse, now laid waste by marauders, the demons and devils live only inside the confines of his own brain.
Saul Austerlitz is a regular contributor to the Forward.