Published October 8, 2006
'Golem Song,' a wonderful challenge
It's no mere happenstance that Alan Krieger uses the volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica and of Will Durant's "The History of Civilization" to fortify a window in his New York apartment that he is converting into a sniper's perch. Notwithstanding his misbegotten idea to "make things a little better for all of us" by igniting an ethnic or racial war, Krieger is perhaps the most erudite, witty and well-read nudnik in contemporary American literature.
This overweight, overwrought and overweening registered nurse is the anti-hero of Vermont author Marc Estrin's latest novel, "Golem Song." Actually, it is the first novel Estrin wrote, preceding the previously published "The Education of Arnold Hitler" and "Insect Dreams: The Half Life of Gregor Samsa." But when Estrin presented the manuscript of "Golem Song" to his editor a half dozen or so years ago, some of the editor's associates thought it was "a bit over the top" and advised that it not be published at the time.
Perhaps that decision was not in line with the highest ideals of American publishing. But it is understandable. The book is over the top and that's what makes it so compelling.
"Golem Song" is not an easy book to read. And not just because its protagonist is an ugly bigot and a pig in almost every sense of the word who sees himself as anointed by God "to protect the Jewish community." It is hard to read in places because the dialogue is so furiously paced, there are scores of often obscure references to literature, Jewish history, music and philosophy, and there are smatterings of Yiddish and Latin phrases.
But "Golem Song" is such a wonderful book because it challenges the reader's assumptions and way of thinking about people and their minds. One can't help but develop a love/hate relationship with Alan Krieger. Love him because of his wit; hate him for who he is.
But also one must love the book because of its sprightly and intelligent dialogue. There is a wonderful conversation in which Alan tells the story of Oedipus to his woefully unworldly mother. Alan also gets into an animated discussion with his girlfriend's family, during which he suggests that the God of the ancient Hebrews should have been brought before a war crimes tribunal. And in another lovely bit of conversation, Alan regales a different girlfriend with a hysterical lesson on the difference between Jews and gentiles.
All of these passages are brilliantly humorous and deadly serious.
Estrin, a lifelong political activist, is a man who looks at the world more seriously than humorously. "I'm not into beach books," he said in an interview.
The idea for "Golem Song" came from a phone call Estrin received some years ago from a Jewish guy in New York who wanted Estrin to buy him a high-powered rifle so he could shoot blacks in the city. "We got into a fight," Estrin says of the call, "and we haven't spoken since." But the telephone conversation was so disturbing to Estrin that he wrote much of it down. And gradually, it became a story and gave birth to a whole slew of crazy characters that worked themselves into the book.
The theme of "Golem Song" is perhaps more relevant today than when Estrin actually wrote the novel. A golem is a legendary character from Jewish folklore, who is created from clay and saves the Jews. In Estrin's own words, however, Golemism is defined as finding a way to frighten away those viewed as threats or those who have actually done bad things. With religious fanaticism and sectarian vengeance spreading across the globe today, Golemism, in Estrin's context, is as rampant now as ever. "In the new world," Alan tells a girlfriend, "the old rules don't apply: all is allowed and all is holy. Even killing."
Estrin, of course, doesn't buy into this. The author, the antithesis of his main character, is a peace activist, not a wisecracking rouι. "All of the shenanigans in the book are probably part of the person I want to be but never was," said Estrin, excluding, of course, any violent impulses. "I'm basically an introvert who can write extroverts on my computer."
He added: "I'm probably less funny in person than I am at the computer. I would say my family and friends think of me as a very serious guy, even somewhat stodgy. And I don't party."
Estrin's life was robust and eclectic years before he turned to the more solitary and narrow world of writing.
He was raised in the Bronx where, he says, "there was nobody but a Jew in my neighborhood." And although he still thinks of himself as "very Jewish culturally," he and his family eschewed the religious trappings of Judaism. "I'm at least an agnostic and probably an atheist," he explained.
After graduating from Queens College in New York, doing two years of doctoral work in microbiology at Rockefeller University and receiving a master's degree in theater from UCLA, he arrived in Vermont, in 1969, "with the original hippie invasion." Over the next decade he taught at Goddard College in Plainfield. Though he was a chemistry major in college, he taught everything at Goddard from theater to music to math to English to physics "just crazy courses," he says. "It was wonderful." He became antsy with academia and became a physician's assistant for a couple of years, worked with the Bread and Puppet theater and circus in the Northeast Kingdom and became the first director of the Peace and Justice Center in Burlington. Eventually, he moved to California to study at a seminary to become a Unitarian minister. But, he said, he was too political for the churches he was assigned to one in Moscow, Idaho, the second in Middlebury so he returned to Burlington in the early 1990s. And he began to write. And as he did so, the threads of his past academics, religion, peace and justice, medicine began winding their way into his stories.
Estrin has no regrets at starting his writing career at an age he now is 67 when others are contemplating retirement. "I'm pretty happy with the gnarly kind of path my life has taken," he said.
Music has always been an integral part of Estrin's life, and it plays throughout "Golem Song." Estrin sings in a chorus and plays a cello. His music, he said, "keeps me sane" by giving him refuge from the nasty politics of today's world. Yet he acknowledged that social and political turmoil have helped him create his fiction.
Although Estrin is one of those Vermonters with a fascinatingly diverse and interesting life story, he would much rather talk about his book than about himself. "The book, in a sense, is more interesting than I am," he said.
Louis Berney is a former Vermont journalist who now lives in Baltimore.