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Pogrom Pop: T Cooper’s Lipshitzes

Reviewed: Lipshitz Six, or Two Angry Blondes by T Cooper Dutton, 2006 My college boyfriend’s grandmother was from Poland. Mushkie came to Chicago as a teenager, getting out in time, well before the Holocaust. All four of my grandparents were … Read More

By / July 1, 2006

Reviewed: Lipshitz Six, or Two Angry Blondes by T Cooper Dutton, 2006

My college boyfriend’s grandmother was from Poland. Mushkie came to Chicago as a teenager, getting out in time, well before the Holocaust. All four of my grandparents were American born, and at the age of nineteen I found Mushkie’s Mittel Europa accent exotic, reminiscent of a vanished past. She told us she could remember the Bolsheviks, the White Russians, and the Cossacks tearing through her childhood house. I imagined the various invaders racing in the front door, running out the back, like Wild West cowboys chasing Indians through false-fronted Deadwood. Of course, this was a simplification — on my part, because I was in love with her grandson, stuffed full of latkes, and couldn’t imagine the reality of anything horrible happening, though I’d read a lot. Mushkie – and my nineteen-year old naivete – are both long gone, but I remembered her voice and story when I read Lipshitz Six, or Two Angry Blondes, the second novel by New York writer T Cooper. Because what Mushkie had really told me was that she had lived through three pogroms, and they weren’t like the one in Fiddler On the Roof: mostly offstage, reflected upon in Act III in a regretful harmonic minor.

Lipshitz Six is two books in one. The first is a straightforward novel about a family, the Lipshitzes. Their story starts in Kishinev, Ukraine, in the Pale of Russia. Esther and her brother, Avi, a cabinetmaker, live with their respective spouses and children behind Avi’s shop. They are happy, or as much as is possible in their time, place, and situation. It is before Passover, and Esther’s husband, Hersh, gathers that something bad is about to happen – a pogrom. He urges the whole clan to leave town for a few days. Esther grudgingly agrees, but Avi does not, and a horrible tragedy ensues. Pieces of this first section are so heartbreaking that it is hard to breathe while reading them. The pogrom in Kishinev is horrific, both real and surreal:

furniture, clothing, sheets and shoes on the street. Ripped up mattresses and pillows, drained feather beds, cooking utensils, tools, a side of meat, pamphlets, vegetables, pots, a doll, a wooden leg with a man’s shoe still on, books, an empty violin case.

Nor does the horror end after the Lipshitzes leave Kishinev. Eventually, Avi immigrates to the United Sates, as part of the Galveston Movement – a program that brought Eastern European Jews to the American South and West – and the rest of the Lipshitzes plan to join him later. Their journey from Kishinev to Germany, and via steerage to New York, is horrific enough — on the train to Germany, the Lipshitzes encounter a young girl, traveling alone, sporadically molested by gentile boys, whose vulnerability mirrors that of all the characters. But then the youngest son, three-year old Reuven, disappears at Ellis Island. Reuven was a tow-head, not identifiably Jewish, and Esther convinces herself that a gentile family has taken him. He is never found, and his loss, combined with the losses of her home and culture, change Esther from a nagging young wife into a frightened older woman. Once the family joins Avi in Texas, she is at sea, becoming convinced that Reuven is Charles Lindbergh, that American icon. (What is this Jewish literary obsession with Lindbergh, of late? I imagine the PhD thesis in fifty years: Suspension and Belief: Uses of Lindbergh Imagery in Post-9/11 Jewish American Fiction.) The Lipshitzes are now confused Texans. The rest of the first section of the novel follows the fates of the surviving children, but mostly stays with Esther and her obsession, reproducing her clipped articles and keepsakes of the blonde aviator’s path and history, and her letters to Lindbergh and his family. After she loses Reuven, Esther is paralyzed, giving up almost before she even begins to search for him: “Like the fine dresser Avi had built for Esther and Hersh on the occasion of their wedding. This dresser, like Reuven, is just one of the many beautiful things that must be left behind.”

Once the Lipshitzes actually get to Texas, the narrative expands with the landscape, becoming less involved in day-to-day life, and more about snapshots of crucial moments. It is difficult to adjust to the change in scope. At times, it seems Cooper has gotten sick of her own narrative. For example, Ben, the Lipshitz’s effeminate eldest son, has an important thread through the first third of the book. Cooper revisits him with a sly consistency, and his swish ways are both a consistent source of humor and pathos – we modern readers know things the family, and even Ben, do not. On the day of Lindbergh’s ticker tape parade in New York, Ben is picked up by a Harvard boy and has twenty-four hours of true passion. It’s a lovely scene: the young men’s lovemaking is interspersed with sounds and glimpses of the crowd below. Then, nothing more on Ben. He moves to Texas to join the rest of his family, working for the family business until he dies – but we get no more of his internal life. This would be fine were Esther’s dominant narrative less frustrating. As it is, though, the characters whom we grow to love are discarded in favor of her useless fixation.

Cut to the current day, and the second section of Lipshitz Six. “The last living Lipshitz,” T Cooper, our narrator, has come home to Texas after a long time. T is a literary sensation, with a well-reviewed first novel, a pretty and demanding girlfriend, and a lot of ambivalence about, well, just about everything in his life. He’s recently survived 9/11, and is now – instead of finishing his second novel, about (surprise!) his family’s emigration from the Ukraine and his Lindbergh-obsessed great-grandmother — working as an Eminem impersonator at a swank bar and bat mitzvahs. His parents have both been killed in a freak car accident, and he has a crank-addicted older adopted brother, a house, and an inheritance to manage. As he deals with the details of his parents’ funerals and estate, he builds a model of Lindbergh’s plane, the Spirit of St. Louis. Eventually, he kind of comes to terms with all the disparate elements of his life. Yet since T denies us a comparable resolution of the first section’s characters, it’s hard to care wheter he has found his own variety of peace.

The divide between the novel’s two sections is tricky. There are parallels between the two, but they would have been more effective if they’d been pushed further. For example, it’s impossible not to compare the pogrom passage about scattered belongings with this, the second section’s description of Ground Zero after 9/11: “Massive, practically prehistoric cranes picking through twisted, smoking I-beams covered in shreds of clothing, skin, hair – entire lives completely and eternally encapsulated in a swatch ripped from some lady’s miniskirt from The Gap.” Moreover, T, the character, doesn’t make himself easy to read, in any sense of the word. The first section of the novel is, in fact, T’s own work, and he hates it. Or doesn’t want to claim it. It’s jarring to read how the author thinks the book you loved is a waste, even if that author is fictional and has a lot to work out. The reader grows to care so much for the early Lipshitzes that it is hard to adjust to T and his ambivalence and fury about every thing they ever did. Why is he so angry? T idolizes Eminem for his fury and fantasies of violence. However, like Eminem, his need for retribution seems over the top. His parents are dead, his brother is a mess, and his grandfather is senile – at that point, isn’t simply not being any of these the best revenge?

Lipshitz Six would have worked better as a good old Dickensian doorstop: more about the earlier generation of the family, and with a bigger, more explicitly parallel chunk of current day angst and confusion. The fictional T Cooper is pissed off, confused, fucked up, and fighting as hard as his great-grandparents didn’t back in Kishinev, against the Russians. He wants their legacy; he doesn’t want their legacy. Will his final acceptance of what he imagines happened to his family in the pogrom – and what has happened to himself –compel him to seek the ultimate Jewish taboo: satisfaction?

The first half of Lipshitz Six made me cry, and the second half made me feel foolish for my earlier emotion. What is the real T Cooper trying to tell us? That fiction is easy and life is difficult? Well, of course. That’s not enough. Cooper has written a book about the horror of loss and the impact of terror, but by making T (fictional) disown his own novel, Cooper (actual) sets up her reader to feel like an ass for liking the earlier work. I will be a nice girl and say I don’t think she meant to do it. But what if she did? If she did, it’s a betrayal of the contract of fiction in the same way that Eminem is a betrayal of the contract of hip-hop — or at least to those of us who have certain ideas about what books and hip-hop are supposed to give us. They’re not cartoons, but the real blood and guts of the world reduced to two manageable dimensions. This is the gift of fiction: the Cossacks may destroy your house, but seventy years later, you can still live to cook your grandson’s girlfriend latkes, and those two moments can exist in a space the size of a loaf of bread (to mix my starch metaphors). This might be more Fiddler on the Roof than Cooper – (real and fictional) would want. When my own grandmother took me to see that sappy show when I was a little girl, she wept throughout. “Why are you crying?” I asked her. “Because that’s how it was, and it was so, so sad,” she said. Cooper (real and fictional) would have to agree: she was right.

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