Can a novel be too ethnic? More particularly, can it be too Jewish? These are reasonable questions given that this Sunday I’m launching my new novel The Boy Walker. A 12-year-old English Bulldog narrates. He’s not the first dog to narrate a novel, but he’s certainly one of a very few Jewish dogs to do so.
My canine narrator, Brute Greenbaum—a fount of Talmudic wisdom—is just the beginning. His masters Morty and Abbie—father and adult son living in the same San Francisco house but estranged—also are Jewish. So is their next-door neighbor Rich Hoernerman. And Abbie’s loose-cannon best buddy Doobie Katz. And Sarah O’Hara-Ohara-Horowitz-Chan, a 10-year-old with Down Syndrome. And her stand-up-comic mother, Rivka Horowitz Chan. (“I couldn’t tell my Jewish and Chinese grandmothers apart. They both played mahjong.”)
So really, do you have to be Jewish to read The Boy Walker? Am I committing literary suicide?
I think not. To begin, ethnic fiction—along with fiction from other countries—has a long track record. If only I enjoyed a tenth of the success of writers like Sherman Alexie, Maya Angelou, Gabriel García Márquez, Khaled Hosseini, Jhumpa Lahiri, Gus Lee, Amos Oz, Salman Rushdie, Arundhati Roy, Amy Tan, Alice Walker and A.B. Yehoshua. Remember, too, such Jewish-American writers creating Jewish characters as Saul Bellow, Michael Chabon, E.L. Doctorow, Cynthia Ozick, Grace Paley, Philip Roth and Elie Wiesel.
Why their success? Every ethnic, cultural or religious group fits within the human family. Backgrounds and characteristics vary to be sure. Basic values often take on different expressions. Yet ethnic literature exposes meaningful similarities. Think of food. Chances are, you’ve enjoyed among others Italian, Chinese, French, Thai, Mexican, Moroccan and Peruvian cooking. I know you recognize the healing power of chicken soup with matzoh balls.
Serious readers derive great satisfaction from discovering cultures different from their own. The pages of a novel can reveal people we may never meet and customs we may never experience. We’re struck not only by the differences but also by important similarities. “They” stop being so foreign. “We” realize that ultimately people are all different just the same.
This also holds true of novels depicting geographic or class differences within our own nation. Imagine denying the relevance of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath in big cities, William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury outside the South or Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March beyond Chicago’s city limits. And what do we do with Twain, Dickens, Proust and others who wrote so long ago?
This Sunday (Jan. 26) from 3:30 to 5:00 pm, I’ll launch The Boy Walker at the Toy Boat Dessert Café on Clement Street at 5th Avenue. I’ll speak and read at 4:15. Do come by. Buy a book if you like, and I’ll sign it. Or just say hello.
See how a very Jewish novel related by a very Jewish dog offers a story with a number of elements specific to Jewish life but as familiar as love of family, the suffering we must endure and the redemptive power of humor.
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Read the first three chapters of The Boy Walker, at davidperlstein.com. Order in soft cover or e-book at Amazon.com, Barnesandnoble.com or iUniverse.com. Check out Green Apple Books and Books, Inc. in Laurel Village, too. And read my short-short story “White on White” in the Winter 2014 online edition of Summerset Review.