A View From the Bridge

At 45, Gustav Rubin has never really managed to break free of his immigrant parents' loving, if ultimately suffocating, embrace

Crossing the Hudsonby Peter Stephan Jungk (translated from the German by David Dollenmayer) Handsel Books, 219 pages, $14.95 (paperback)

Picture an overbearing Jewish mother screaming at the guy behind the counter of a car rental agency at Kennedy Airport in New York, while her embarrassed son cowers at her side. We've read scenarios like this in countless novels, seen it in films and perhaps even experienced it in our own lives, and it serves to foreshadow what follows in "Crossing the Hudson," the latest novel by Peter Stephan Jungk. The story that follows has its fair share of Borscht Belt humor, but that's counterbalanced by a hefty dose of European heaviness.

Much like his latest protagonist, Jungk, the author of eight books, including the acclaimed biography "Franz Werfel: A Life from Prague to Hollywood" (1990?), was born in the United States in 1952 to Jewish immigrants, but raised in several European cities. Not surprisingly, this book's sensibilities straddle both continents. There are coincidental encounters that seem possible only in American fiction (or cinema) as well as existential ruminations more typical of the Germanic tradition. Jungk, who lives in Paris, seems equally comfortable with both, and has skillfully woven together an original, if at times excessively understated, tale.

When it opens, Mother, as she is referred to throughout the book, is busy explaining to the rental agent that her middle-aged son hasn't slept for 29 hours, as their flight from Austria had an unplanned emergency landing in Reykjavik. She is hoping to get someone's attention, but the agent is preoccupied with a ballpoint pen, which he is rolling back and forth on the surface of the counter. "It doesn't get dark there, and he left his sleeping mask at home," she explains emphatically.

The son, Gustav Rubin, a fur dealer who lives in Austria, is 45 years old. But judging from the opening, and several scenes that follow, one would never know it. One imagines Gustav, the book's protagonist, as a young child, and as the book progresses we gradually come to understand that on the emotional level, that's what he is. Not that he can't take care of himself - back in Austria, he is a responsible husband and father of two - but he has never really managed to break free of his immigrant parents' loving, if ultimately suffocating, embrace and become his own man, hardly an outlandish premise for a novel about a Jewish family.

Jungk returns in this latest novel to questions of existence and what it means to be one's own person, themes he explored in his previous book, "The Perfect American" (2004), a fictional biography of Walt Disney, which the New York City Opera later asked composer Philip Glass to adapt for the operatic stage. There, Jungk established himself as a writer of books propelled more by the inner world and fantasy than by action-driven narrative.

That novel purports to be a confession written in prison by Wilhelm Dantine, a fictional Austrian-born cartoonist whose slavish obsession with Disney, his employer, is at once his life force and the cause of his downfall. One reviewer urged readers to "Proceed with caution into Jungkland," a world where fact and fantasy are impossible to distinguish, but where insights are "true - and troubling."

With "Crossing the Hudson," Jungk has turned from obsession to another kind of overpowering loss of self, in a book that is no less turned inward, and no less fantastical. At first one expects the existential drama to revolve around Gustav's relationship with his mother, who takes every opportunity to infantilize her son. But Jungk surprises us with a book that focuses instead on the relationship between Gustav and his late father, one that proves equally complicated, if less susceptible to mockery.

Insatiable appetite

Ludwig David Rubin was a well-known public intellectual who was recognized by strangers on the street. His was the kind of unrelenting ego that swallows up everybody in sight, including the hundreds of women with whom he had affairs, relating to them as nourishment for his insatiable appetite. This isn?t to say Ludwig wasn't well-meaning - he was simply unaware of the shadows he cast. The one who suffered most from him was his son, who simply could not compete with his father's vitality, and so didn't even attempt to do so. Gustav's "inferiority seemed a natural state and he accepted it," we are told.

The story unfolds as mother and son are caught in an epic traffic jam while crossing the Hudson River. While Gustav's wife and children anxiously await his arrival at their summer home north of New York City, Gustav finds himself questioning his love for his wife, a symptom, it seems, of his overall inability to assert his own desires, and the first inkling of what is yet to emerge. What starts out as an almost slapstick exchange between mother and son shifts gears and becomes a reflective meditation by Gustav on his life and childhood, interspersed with some bizarre, almost surreal, encounters.

Most of this imaginative, if somewhat tepid book, then, unfolds on the Tappan Zee Bridge, where Gustav and his mother end up sitting for hours. This conceit, though sometimes limiting, is ripe with symbolism. Crossing the river becomes a metaphor for Gustav's internal journey, and potential transformation. "All bridges ... they all caused a slight quickening of his pulse, grounded him in the here and now, while giving him a presentiment of ineffable, intangible things." Plus it's Friday afternoon, and Gustav has recently turned Orthodox. The approaching Sabbath, which marks the transition from mundane to holy, heightens the tenor of this journey, adding a spiritual dimension to an otherwise mundane task.

It gradually becomes clear that a truck transporting toxic chemicals has turned over, causing traffic in both directions to come to a standstill. A traffic jam is an obvious tool - it slows down the narrative to allow for Gustav?s personal musings - but the author manages to make it resonate in deeper ways. Like the traffic, Gustav is stuck: He feels indifferent to his profession and ambivalent about his marriage. But most of all he is paralyzed by his father's overreaching presence, which continues from the grave to prevent him from finding his own way. Crossing the river holds the promise of personal growth, and possibly independence.

Largely unfazed by the traffic jam or by his mother's ongoing critiquing of him - this calm is part of his rather unshakeable persona - Gustav falls into a meditative reflection about his father, a nuclear researcher who died 11 months earlier. The Talmud says that "even the basest of souls" need at most 11 months to "be washed clean of their sins and escape hell," Gustav notes. For Gustav too, the 11-month marker ends up providing a transformational opportunity.

In a twist reminiscent of Kafka as well as Woody Allen, both Gustav and his mother see Ludwig's body - "the colossal, golem-like fatherbody" -floating nude in the river below. Traffic comes to a halt, men and women mingle on the bridge, and mother and son try to determine whether Ludwig's body is real or a figment of their shared imagination (she reads his mind on several occasions).

Either way, it doesn't really matter. For Jungk, fantasy and reality are often one and the same, and he is skilled at capturing the absurdity of the situation while making it entirely believable as well. The size of Ludwig's body may be a way of symbolically suggesting that Gustav is still a child who imagines his father to be larger than life, and whose presence continues to hold too much power over him. Crossing the bridge becomes a metaphor for breaking loose of his father?s hold and leaving childhood behind.

All of this makes for a potentially compelling book, and yet "Crossing the Hudson" struggles to completely live up to that promise. In part it lacks emotional resonance, a shortcoming that mirrors the protagonist's own failings. Gustav struggles to feel much of anything, including ambition, for himself or those around him. He has already abandoned his fledgling attempts at becoming a historian, reluctantly becoming a fur dealer instead, and seems equally lukewarm about his wife. Similarly frustrating is the book's handling of his religious identity, which like other parts of his life seem to be almost accidental.

We are meant to believe that much of Gustav?s passivity has to do with growing up in the shadow of his father's success, though the picture Jungk paints of Ludwig as a father leaves a lot to be desired. It weighs heavy on idiosyncratic details about Gustav's childhood and his parents, often at the expense of emotional force. The reader is forced to connect the dots and imagine the emotional consequences of Gustav?s upbringing in an often unsatisfying manner.

The best explanation we are given for Gustav's inability to cut the umbilical cord is his parents' background: They came to America as refugees from Austria during World War II, but in the decades that followed, moved back and forth between Europe and America, all the while keeping their only child tightly clutched to themselves. "I'm sorry, but you'll just have to accept that we're more attached to you than normal parents," Gustav recalls his father telling him. "We are one flesh united, a unit of Rubinflesh."

Siamese triplets

This attachment has some especially bizarre manifestations, such as his parents' insistence on walking around the house nude and having Gustav bathe with them until midway through his adolescence. Gustav imagines the threesome as "Siamese triplets attached at the head and genitals." But what is missing from Jungk's portrait is how Gustav felt growing up under such circumstances.

Looking back from the bridge, Gustav recognizes that to become a man requires struggling against one's father. "Whoever hasn't slugged it out with his father, whoever has failed to defend himself will feel weak, incomplete, unmanly for the rest of his life," Gustav says.

But like many of the insights scattered throughout this book, Gustav's newfound understanding seems destined to remain an intellectual realization alone, one that hasn't quite penetrated. As a result, Gustav comes across as a distant observer of his own life, and the reader too has trouble feeling much for this shadow of a man.

That's in part why the last 20 pages of the book come as something of a surprise. Without giving too much away, it can be said that Gustav makes a final attempt to confront his deceased father. It is a gesture that ends up causing him to risk his own life, but Gustav recognizes that without it he would remain only half a man. Gustav's climactic moment coincides with both the clearing of the traffic jam and sundown.

"Twilight began to fall. It was the moment when Shabbat began, the high point of creation," Jungk writes. It is the high point of the novel as well, a moment we have, in a way, been waiting for. But given the tone of most of the book, it's hard to tell what impact it will end up having on Gustav's life, and whether it will be enough to turn him into his own man. One certainly hopes so.

The book cover suggests Kafkaesque themes, such as the blurring of fantasy and reality, and the story's fable-like quality. But Ludwig's body, which stretches a mile down the Hudson, reminded me more of the 1989 Woody Allen short "Oedipus Wrecks," about a New York lawyer whose overly critical mother disappears in a magic show, only to reappear like a Freudian phantom hovering like a giant cloud above the city. Here, though, Jungk tackles the other side of the Freudian triangle - complexes that involve fathers and sons, which can be equally complicated, though perhaps less humorous. While Jungk's book has many redeeming qualities, originality being chief among them, his tale is also frustratingly muted.

Michal Lando is a freelance writer based in Tel Aviv. Most recently she was the New York correspondent for the Jerusalem Post.