Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Nowhere Man


My reaction to this book may be an indication of my limits as a reader. Plenty of people have admired it -- it won Howard Jacobson the Man Booker Prize in 2010, after all -- and it's supposedly hilarious. Whatever they see in it was invisible to me, although it was occasionally clever and funny.

Julian Treslove makes a bland enough protagonist. After all, his occupation is being a celebrity lookalike although he supposedly doesn't look enough like any one celebrity to prevent him from playing anyone from Brad Pitt to Robert De Niro, as the occasion demands. Mostly he spends his time yearning to be Jewish. There really isn't much else to say about him. Presumably his desire to be Jewish is meant to indicate some higher meaning. In a character less beige, this desire might lead us on an exciting intellectual quest to explore various facets of Jewish history, politics, culture, and family. But in Julian, it's just kind of weird.

Julian spends a lot of his time thinking about his frenemy Sam Finkler, a pop philosopher. Finkler is Jewish and Julian envies him, although there isn't too much to like about Finkler, either. He's pretty much a pompous, self-centered social climber eager to stay famous. But Julian so identifies his friend with the Jewish essence (whatever that is) that he refers to Jews as "Finklers," hence the book's title. In a neat contrast, Finkler is the quasi-leader of a group of famous and semi-famous Jews who identify themselves as being "ashamed Jews," specifically because of Israel's actions in Gaza.

Rounding out the trio is Julian and Sam's former professor, Libor Sevcik, still intellectually sharp at ninety but mourning the death of his kind and glamorous wife. He's the most interesting character, a sophisticated Jewish man of the world descending into his twilight years, and his realization of the shifting nature of memory and grief for the departed is one of the more interesting aspects of this book. He's also a spokesperson for the pro-Israel viewpoint.

The three men have dinner together on a regular basis, forming a rather sad men's club (Sam and Libor are both widowers, and Julian has been left by a series of women). Julian gets mugged, recalls his affair with Sam's wife Tyler, and succeeds and then fails romantically with Hephzibah, a distant relative of Libor. There's plenty of Jewish/Gentile-related angst familiar to anyone who has read Philip Roth, including the obligatory obsession with sexual performance and circumcision or lack thereof.

It's all well enough written, if you don't mind a frequently shifting point of view, a complex chronology, a handful of loose ends, and a protagonist who disappears in a most unsatisfying way from the final pages. I suppose that's appropriate for a celebrity look-alike who doesn't really look like anyone.

Excerpt:

Sam Finkler, or Samuel Finkler, as he still was then, had not done [an impractical] modular degree at a seaside university. He knew better, he said, which side his bread was buttered. Finklerish of him, Treslove thought admiringly, wishing he had the instincts for knowing on which side his own bread was buttered.

"So what's it going to be?" he asked. "Medicine? Law? Accountancy?"

"Do you know what that's called?" Finkler asked him.

"What what's called?"

"That thing you're doing."

"Taking an interest?"

"Stereotyping. You've just stereotyped me."

"You said you knew which side your bread was buttered. Isn't that stereotyping yourself?"

"I am allowed to stereotype myself," Finkler told him.

"Ah," Treslove said. As always he wondered if he would ever get to the bottom of what Finklers were permitted to say about themselves that non-Finklers were not.

Note: This book counts for the Color Coded Reading Challenge (white).

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