Guest Review: Clifford Garstang

andthewordwas.jpgAnd the Word Was
Bruce Bauman
Other Press
350 pp.

In Greek mythology, Castor, son of Zeus and the mortal Leda, was a soldier and champion athlete who was killed in a battle that was not his. In Bruce Bauman’s And the Word Was, Castor is a precocious New York City teenager killed in a Columbine-like school-shooting rampage. Names are important in this book, although the conjured associations are left incomplete. Mythology’s Castor had a twin brother, Pollux, granted immortality by Zeus in compensation for Castor’s death. Here, Castor has no siblings, let alone an immortal twin. In Hindu mythology, Holika, sister of a maniacal king, could not be harmed by fire but still burned to death when the king tried to use her to murder his disloyal son. Here, Holika is a fiery Indian heiress who also finds herself at the center of a palace controversy, but escapes unhurt the fire that incapacitates her corrupt, power-crazed brother.

Neil Downs (the name is a silly pun, given the character’s atheism) is an emergency room physician in New York City. His wife, Sarah, is a modestly successful artist. After their son’s murder (by disaffected students shouting ethnic slurs), and the revelation that Sarah was with another man at the time, Downs runs as far away as he can, and finds that he feels at home in chaotic Delhi, a “city on the verge of collapse.” The U.S. ambassador to India, Charlie Bedrosian, happens to be an acquaintance who feels beholden to Downs for saving the life of his only son, and appears to favor Downs by introducing him to Holika, the niece of a prominent industrialist. But Holika eventually helps Downs see Charlie’s venal motives and the truth about his ties with both her uncle and the CEO of a palm-greasing American conglomerate.

While corporate intrigue and domestic affairs provide for satisfying plot twists, it is the protagonist’s attempt to understand his son’s death that is at the heart of the novel. In Delhi, Downs seeks out Levi Furstenblum, a philosopher and holocaust survivor whose work on the unthinkable horror in Europe Downs admires. The two men recognize in each other the burden of unbearable grief, and Downs hopes the older man can help him cope. How, he wants to know, did Furstenblum survive the death of his family at Auschwitz? How can one believe in a God who permits such senseless tragedy? How can one go on living? There is something dirty about survival, Furstenblum tells him. Only those with the most vicious inhuman instincts survive, and this view echoes Downs’s own corrosive guilt over his failure to save his son on the operating table. It is to the novel’s credit that the questions are offered no easy answers, and that they resonate beyond the final chapter. Furstenblum succumbs to his pessimistic worldview; for Downs we are left to wonder.

If the rationality of survivor-guilt is the principal theme, the world of the novel also suffers from the darkness of less incomprehensible human stains: the exploitation of outcastes and untouchables, not just in India; the unrelenting, sensationalist excesses of the media; the amorality of lawyers (in the shape here of a law firm known by the initials of its principals, KFC, as if it were as oily and heartless as a bucket of chicken); and the callousness of the global polluters who fill Delhi’s air with unbreathable grit and India’s rivers with undrinkable slime.

Biblical allusions are central, beginning with the book’s title. John 1:1 is invoked: “In the beginning was the word and the word was with God, and the word was God.” The first paragraph echoes that passage: “But I am no trickster, so it is best I tell you in the beginning.” Later, in a quotation from Furstenblum’s unpublished works, we return to John: “I now interpret this as a god who killed his son and did not assure eternality, but ended the dream of immortality beyond time while bequeathing the ‘spirit’ to us.” And Sarah’s name alludes to the mother of Isaac, wife of Abraham, whom God asked to sacrifice his son. These allusions suggest that after sacrifice the human spirit can build a new life. But both Downs and Furstenblum find belief in God impossible. Although they scoff at the notion that their respective tragedies are God’s will, Downs at least clings to hope. It is a sentiment for which Furstenblum says he has no use.

Although the novel is layered with the complexities and vivid characterizations and settings that make fiction worthwhile, two flaws stand out, one more serious than the other. The protagonist speaks, for the most part, in the elevated manner of a highly-educated American, even one who, like Downs, comes from a working class immigrant family. Except, he frequently slips into a jarring uncultivated vernacular: “it’s gonna be fine,” “we gotta do something,” “I’m kinda thinking,” “g’head, gimme the worst.” The distraction serves no discernible purpose.

More problematic is the manipulation of the reader by a narrator who, aware of the outcome as he begins to relate the events that brought him to India and back, withholds crucial information. The reader shares with the narrator a misunderstanding that is only unscrambled for the reader in the novel’s closing pages. It is not quite as egregious as would have been a disclosure that the tragedy was all a bad dream, but the reader’s retroactive mistrust of the narrator will be forgiven. What else didn’t he tell us?

Notwithstanding these flaws, Bauman’s first novel is an impressive achievement. In a world where incomprehensible mayhem has become almost commonplace, where the absence of God is a reasonable, almost irrefutable proposition, how can anyone step confidently into the future? If there is such guilt in survival, why do we keep on surviving? Furstenblum could find no answer to the question, but Downs finds his hope not in God, but in humankind’s collective survival and in the love he feels for his family. He hopes that is enough.

Clifford Garstang lives near Staunton, Virginia and occasionally blogs at Perpetual Folly. His work has appeared in Bellowing Ark, Eureka Literary Magazine, and North Dakota Quarterly, and is forthcoming in Baltimore Review and Shenandoah.


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