More Than Shylock's Revenge
EARLY IN MARK HARRIS'S BOOK I began to think the only way out might be a review in the form of one of those dreadful fantasy dialogues with your wife.
She would ask womanly questions: “Why ever did they pick you to review it? Because you're such a goy ?” I'd briskly give the author the business with a little slanted exposition. “Harris's goy ,” I'd yell, “is this preposterous archetypal Aryan named Westrum, a tall, blond escapee from Middle America. He's broken his son's back in a rage and—get this!—he sometimes secretly wonders if he's ‘the seed-bearer of fascism in America.' He's a great athlete…”( “Like Sandy Koufax?” my wife would chime in) “…and every day he runs two miles and bicycles eight. ‘The more strenuous his exercise,' Harris explains, ‘the less violent his antagonisms.' And (for God's sake) he goes on: In his heart lay murder.'”
“Is the book good or bad for the Jews?” my wife would ask.
With that, of course, the dialogue had to be abandoned. But as I pressed on through the book, the question remained a problem. Westrum is embarked on a special history of our times, done through notes he takes on every detail of his day-to-day life. He is also trying to correct his dangerous WASP proclivities by marrying Jews, having a Jewish mistress, and surrounding himself with Jews, most of whom are as much a caricature as he is himself. “They wept and kissed and told one another how beautiful they were,” Westrum muses. “It was for this he had married into the Jews—to share the warmth of it.”
How could Harris be doing this to me, I wondered, reflecting rather meanly that, in fact, his name used to be Mark Finkelstein. For one thing, Harris's book Bang the Drum Slowly (1956) is the best novel about baseball ever written. For another thing, dammit, as a goy of goodwill I've been taught for years that racial stereotypes don't exist in real life, and, like most liberals, I've piously agreed that, whether they do or not, the less said about such things the better. (“Accusation drifted toward truth in the moment of utterance,” Harris has Westrum perceptively observe, late in the book, while he is mentally accusing his Jewish brother-in-law of persecuting him.)
But here is Harris, back to racist typecasting. Some of his Jewish characters tremble in an atavistic fear at Westrum's mere presence. Westrum, the big puritan hypocrite, lies all the time, saying that he doesn't drink or smoke or chase women, when he does. He pickets the local high school football program officially because, he says, “Football is Fascism.” Secretly, though, he does so to impress the pretty, pacifistic Jewish lady principal.
Only toward the end of the book does it dawn on the reader that Harris is offering much more than a Shylock's dream of retaliatory caricature. For Westrum, as he proceeds through a pure charade of a plot, eventually emerges as a troubled man wrestling with dangerous urges which, whether racial or not, are clearly widespread. The book is a study of the astonishing contrivances that men use to hold at bay whatever impulses they feel are base within themselves. It is a lifelong struggle, easily sabotaged by self-delusion and inextricably mixed motives. “Assume a virtue if you have it not,” Hamlet counseled his mother, and indeed, for Westrum, self-improvement and hypocrisy dwell together. Westrum traps himself into drinking and smoking less by pretending publicly that he has never done either. When he pickets the football team to get into bed with the lady principal he is, in fact, glad of the goys-and-dolls sexual drive that encourages him to bear witness against the “kill'em” spirit than can poison high school football. When he amazes the Jewish director of a research foundation by saying that he is totally true to own wife, he is seeking some sort of primitive power from the illusion of purity. “I thought that the appearance of a perfect moral posture was all I had,” he writes. “It was my price of admission.”
Contrivances. Delusions. Daily exercises to cool the blood. Mistrust of oneself. Circular scrupulousness. Projects and note-taking. Westrum is a working part of that shaky, hypocritical, priceless conspiracy which, still hoping for the best, calls itself civilization. “Am I the world? “ he muses. “The world was a violent place and he didn't like it. The world must exercise the heart harder, he thought, alone on a bicycle, unarmed, shackled to the long tasks he set himself.”