By Michael Lavigne
Random House, 320 pages, $24.95.
Between what one is told and what one is able to infer, there lies a distant and beckoning truth: the Parent as Human Being. It glimmers beyond our grasp, always sought after but never obtained, the object of conjecture but never of understanding. For some, seeking this truth is much like a fill-in-the-blank: Years of family anecdotes, photo albums and information offered up willingly — and accidentally — allow the child to create some vague outline of who his parents were before him. For some, however, what they know of their parents is only a distorted shadow of their former selves, the previous life so erased or shaded from view that uncovering it is a nearly impossible task.
Such is the case for Michael Rosenheim, the protagonist in Michael Lavigne’s new novel, “Not Me.” Rosenheim’s Alzheimer’s-afflicted father, Heshel, is deteriorating quickly in an assisted-living facility in West Palm Beach, Fla., regressing through a life that Michael never knew in the first place. Michael — or Mickey Rose, as he is known professionally as a self-deprecating and mildly funny Jewish comedian — has forged a career based on his refusal to accept his father’s fervent Judaism, a mediocrity for which he has lost his wife and son, both of whom he misses desperately.
The novel begins with Michael’s reluctant receipt of his father’s journals, whose startling message is the basis of the story: Heshel is not, as Michael thought, a German Jewish concentration camp survivor; rather, his passionately Jewish, award-winning-humanitarian father was a Nazi accountant at Majdanek who, fearing for his life in the camp’s imminent invasion, starved himself, tattooed his arm and stole the identity of a dead inmate.
Michael exhibits the natural reaction to such shocking news — horror, surprise, confusion, disbelief — but he is unable to question his father, whose answers to his son’s questions are vague even during his infrequent spurts of lucidity. The novel juxtaposes Michael’s search for the truth about his father with the text of the journals themselves, which tell of the Heinrich Mueller turned Heshel Rosenheim who found himself in Israel, running a kibbutz with Nazi efficiency and then fighting for the Haganah in Israel’s War of Independence.
Although Lavigne’s premise is a fascinating one, the story fails to capture the depth or horror of the dilemma at its heart. The novel’s main fault is that it is overdone: Lavigne’s writing style quickly becomes tedious, and his overblown symbols detract from a simple, devastating truth that would have succeeded had it been allowed to speak for itself. I understand, for example, that Heshel’s journals are written in the third-person because he sought to distance himself from the atrocities he committed. But here, Lavigne’s choice reeks not of literary merit but of a copout.
The beauty of literature is that it allows even the most despicable of characters to be, if not loved, at least understood. Yet Lavigne is unable to give depth or even likeability to a character as innocuous as Michael Rosenheim. His failures as husband and father are not funny but despicable, and the details of his life — from his AstroTurf-sodded lawn to his post-marital celibacy — overshoot sad and land in the pathetic.
Similar troubles plague the story within the story, Heshel’s journal. Heshel’s transformation from Jew-hater to tireless Jewish philanthropist and advocate is as predictable and carefully plotted as the graph of a straight line. And the only challenge to the kibbutznik’s secret is overcome, as so many of the novel’s questions are, with a coincidence of unfeasible convenience. Heshel’s love for Judaism develops much as that of an arranged marriage, but Heshel is no Tevye.
“Not Me” concludes as an exercise in unrealized potential. The premise of the book is a promising one, but the heavy-handedness with which each irony, comparison and theme is presented — the similarities between father and son, the struggle that Michael faces as he tries to forgive his father during the Days of Awe between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the thread of atonement that runs through the story — prevents the disturbing questions from resonating. The book begins with a quotation from Elie Wiesel: “Every question possesses a power that does not lie in the answer.” Lavigne fails to live up to his opening, however, when he tells us the answers instead of letting us grapple with the questions ourselves.
Tessa Brown is a sophomore at Princeton University. Her fiction has appeared in Harper’s Magazine.