Friday, May 28, 2010

All the way back to Exodus

Susan Messer, Grand River and Joy (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2009). 230 pp. $24.00.

Once upon a time, Detroit was a great Jewish city. By the Second World War, it was home to eighty-five thousand Jews, who prayed sporadically (if they prayed at all) in twenty-three synagogues, most of them concentrated along the Dexter and Linwood corridor, nearly all of them now converted into black Protestant churches or abandoned to ruin.

The Jews of Detroit migrated steadily north and west, staying just ahead of the advancing African Americans, who poured into the city from the rural South starting in 1914, when Henry Ford announced that he would pay five dollars a day to anyone, including African Americans, who would work on the new assembly line at River Rouge. By 1950 the Jews had settled into Oak Park, but within the decade they were on the move again, opening up the suburbs of Southfield and then Farmington. “These aren’t new issues for Jews, about trying to read the signs, and knowing when to leave, what you may lose by staying behind,” remarks a character in Susan Messer’s novel Grand River and Joy. “All the way back to Exodus.”

The 61-year-old Messer’s intelligent first novel, published not quite a year ago by the University of Michigan Press, is a fictional inquiry into “these issues.” Harry Levine owns a wholesale shoe store on Grand River Avenue just south of Joy Road (“Joy Road—now there was a misnomer”). The rundown neighborhood is represented by the “magnificent, decaying Riviera Theater” across the street and down a few blocks, whose “festering” sign leads Harry’s sister Ilo to call it “the Iviera.”

When Harry and Ilo arrive at work on Halloween morning in 1966—one of the best things about her novel is that Messer is exacting and definite about dates and addresses, wanting to locate her narrative at a fixed and particular time and place—they find a message soaped on the store’s front window: Honky Jew boy. When Harry goes to the basement for a bucket and brush to clean the window, he discovers that a back room has been “made into something, someone’s notion of a clubhouse, or a living room.” A circle of chairs, including a “fifties-style armchair with no legs” and a “dingy plaid couch with worn arms that had an old brocade curtain thrown over it,” surrounds ashtrays overflowing with marijuana cigarettes, “whole ones and parts,” a record player stacked with Motown albums, and a pile of Black Panther literature (“It was for example the exploitation of Jewish landlords and merchants which first created black resentment toward Jews”).

Harry immediately realizes that the clubhouse or living room was set up by the teenaged son of the black man who is his upstairs tenant and occasional day laborer. What he only vaguely senses is the racial tension that would explode into violent rioting nine months later. Grand River and Joy covers those nine months, subtly graphing the pressures as they rise to the boiling point.

Messer’s strategy is to study the relationship between Harry and Curtis, his tenant and sometime employee (Curtis’s angry and militant son Alvin, who will play a central role in the riot scenes to come, remains sullenly in the background until then). But Messer also follows Harry’s wife Ruth through her interactions with Jewish neighbors who are considering whether to move out of the city, family who have already moved out of the city, and fellow members of the Detroit Council of Jewish Women, who discuss the politics and morality, over coffee cake, of moving out of the city.

Harry’s conversations with Curtis are a little stilted, as might be expected from such an ancient genre (fiction in the form of philosophical dialogues). Curtis explains the plight of the black artist, for example:

Look at those young people writing the Motown songs. They’re writing beautiful stories, set to music. . . . Of course, the Motown stars are not the only talent around. I tell that to my son. They wouldn’t sound like much without the Funk Brothers playing behind them. Do they get any credit for what they do? No. But they keep playing their music anyway. Great music. Great musicians. Playing over on Twelfth—at the Chit Chat, Eagle Show Bar, Collingwood. If you’ve got the talent and the need, you keep on, no matter who pushes you down.Harry’s reply? “You’re what my anthropologist daughter would call an informant.” He offers Curtis a drink and a l’hayim. “We’re informing each other,” he says, “seeing what the other has to teach.”

More informative, though, are Ruth’s scenes. Easily annoyed (slow speech, slow movements, saying the obvious thing), Ruth is a special type of Jewish woman who has rarely appeared, even in the pages of American Jewish fiction—the highly intelligent but undereducated housewife who lives for books and ideas, who relishes insight, and who has no ready access to them. The third of seven children born to a kosher chicken-slaughterer, she is the perpetually frustrated outsider, even in her own family. Messer describes her with astonishing penetration.

Nevertheless, Ruth’s husband Harry is the center of the novel. And the very fact that he is in the wholesale shoe business—he is neither a writer nor the graduate of a writers’ workshop—sets Grand River and Joy apart from most other first novels. Messer is very good at capturing the feel of such a business. Like Philip Roth, she obviously believes that most of what a man is is what a man does all day during working hours.

And yet the most powerful scene in this plainly written, briskly paced novel occurs in a little boxy shul that Harry stumbles upon while he navigates the back streets of Detroit, trying to avoid rioters and National Guard troops to reach his store. The shammes flags him down. “Just in time,” he says, handing Harry a yarmulke. “They need one more for the minyan.” While the old men in the shul chant the traditional morning prayers, Harry plunges into memory, reliving the first time that he and Ruth had ever slept together. He snaps to with a flush of shame, but then:Deep within the privacy of his tallis tent, he saw that the horror that had seized the city could release him. It could open his life, push him out, tell him go, be, do.Grand River and Joy is neither a great novel nor even a compact admirable well-made novel, but it is something worth honoring, because it is unlike so much contemporary American fiction. (That may explain why it was published by a university press rather than a commercial New York house.) Messer’s novel tells how real places and real events, recognized with shocking minuteness, are what release men and women into their real lives.

Update: Michigan has recently released a paperback edition of Messer’s novel.


Manolo said...

Ayyyy! When the Manolo thinks of the Jews of Detroit, he cannot help but think of Hank Greenberg.

D. G. Myers said...

Hank Greenberg was actually a Bronx boy.