When Grief Is a Family Heirloom

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In the Land of the Living, by Austin Ratner

Little, Brown and Company, 210 pages, $26

Isidore Auberon, the middle son of Ezer, an impoverished refugee from war-torn Poland and an emotionally and physically abusive father, is left grief-stricken early in his life by the loss of Sophie, his young mother, the only soft, sweet and loving presence of his childhood. Austin Ratner’s imaginatively drawn young protagonist is caught in a classic Freudian triangle that creatively bears the imprint of Henry Roth’s “Call it Sleep,” Isaac Rosenfeld’s “Passage from Home” and Philip Roth’s “Indignation.” Although there is no explicit competition between father and son over the possession of Sophie’s memory, Isidore literally hates the violent and distant Ezer and remains deeply pained by the palpable absence of Sophie, whose lilac-scented blouse he has salvaged and into which he weeps bitterly in his lowest moments.

Isidore is nearly overwhelmed by intense sorrow and anger – at Ezer, at an unfair universe, and at himself. But he rallies his courage and his searing intelligence in pursuit of a life radically different from the darkness and brutality he has experienced at home in Cleveland, Ohio. This he achieves for a time. In the early sixties Isidore works his way through college and medical school and, like Austin Ratner himself, becomes a doctor. And he marries a beautiful and even-tempered woman whose too-good-to-be-true father becomes the parent Isidore has yearned for.

He goes on in the 1970s to a remarkably successful and duly recognized medical career, though rage continues to bubble, not always below the surface. And though he lives “hysterically on the knife edge of oblivion” and occasionally fears that his father’s monstrosity is heritable, he comes to love life. Alas, his happiness is short-lived, just as the fatalistic Isidore sporadically sensed it would be.

The initial part of the story unfolds in 100 tightly and compellingly written pages, which could easily stand alone as a brilliant novella, equal in power to Ratner’s first novel, “The Jump Artist.” Published in 2009, “The Jump Artist” was a fictionalized biography of Philippe Halsman, the great photographer and refugee from Nazi-occupied Europe who was able to transcend, without losing it entirely, a deep sadness built around his conviction and imprisonment in his native Austria on the trumped-up charge of murdering his father. “The Jump Artist” was in many ways a very different book from the one under review here, but essentially it too is a father-and-son-and-death story.

“In the Land of the Living” also continues as a story about sons and fathers, dead and living (but in memory only). Isidore is stricken with a fatal illness, leaving his three3-year-old son Leo and another child, as yet unborn, bereft and psychologically burdened. The brothers at times rely on, but more often disappoint, one another. This is pPerhaps not so unusual for siblings. But into the lives of these boys something much darker enters. Both are oppressed (and inspired) by stories of their own father’s achievements and by the central tragic event of their early years.

Leo -- and to a lesser extent, Mack, who never saw his father --– is, mirroring Isidore, cursed with a depressive mind-set and an anger at both the world and himself that more than mirrors Isidore’s. This parallel works if we can suspend disbelief. Would even the most intelligent and sensitive three3-year-old, experiencing the death of his father, remain at 29 so haunted, so obsessed with living up to his father’s ideals and achievements, and so self-destructive as to derail his life at so many important passage points, including his shaping of relationships with family and friends, his sexual awakening, his first love?

And would this be possible even after the boy whose mother, not many years after her husband’s death, marries a man (another one drawn too ideally by the author) who becomes a beloved “Dad” to Leo, even if never “Daddy?” Unlikely. But, put your incredulity aside and take the journey through Ratner’s later chapters. Though less tight and more repetitious, they allow readers, through fragments, snatches of conversation, rapid scene-change, and omniscient narrative, to infer and imagine much in this richly wrought story.

The cold war returns

Sometimes the darkness lifts for Leo and the ice breaks between the two brothers. But again and again, the light fades and the cold war returns. Despite Leo’s desperation to buck self-hate, he continues, right through his twenties20s, to believe that he and Mack are deeply inferior to their friends -- and that “others,” smiled upon by fate, are chosen for laughter and fulfilled expectations. But as his Aunt Jenny says, Leo doesn’t know a thing about the struggle everybody has “just with being a person.”

There comes a point in the story when Leo actually thinks of his father as Him (God, that is), but there is a dimension of irony here, even hatred, stoked by feelings of abandonment and the failure to measure up. Leo’s visit to the cemetery where his father is buried brings to mind the figure of Shakespeare’s Lear on the heath: “I came here looking for you, Daddy, but you aren’t here. I guess I wasn’t good enough after all. I’m only my pitiful small self, my irrational self, raving with wounds. Self-pitying fool! Yes, can’t anyone take pity on a boy who is unknown to himself, wild with grief?”

Leo apparently ignores the epitaph, a line from Macbeth, on Isidore’s tombstone, “Your cause of sorrow/Must not be measured by his worth, for then/It hath no end.”

And “no end” is what it looks to be, until Leo girds himself once again after many false starts to “swim for his life in the changing fortune and convoluted currents of the ocean which glittered and destroyed.” Destroyed is the operative word here, because Leo, seriously bi-polar (a diagnostic term Dr. Ratner as novelist wisely avoids), is to be collared again and again by that perniciously depressive way of thinking rooted in his childhood. Leo, like Isidore, becomes a doctor, but (like Ratner) fails to practice. And again like Ratner, Leo turns to writing, for which he and his creator have enormous talent.

We don’t find out how successful Leo is as an author, but we know that he will, in his see-saw battle against mental illness, reach yet other crossroads between potential self-destruction and a birth of new freedom. These conflicting possibilities are perfectly captured when Mack, seemingly out of the blue, invites Leo to accompany him on a road trip from Los Angeles to the Pacific Northwest and then on to their home town of Cleveland for a family wedding. As they make their way Easteast, recurring battles and reconciliations take place, as well as long periods of silence. Poignant and heartbreaking moments, however, are partially dispelled by snatches of positive chemistry and even sporadic bursts of hilarity as the brothers share memories and new experiences and inch toward understanding.

Still, Leo, as he listens to the running of the Elwha river in Olympic National Park, “wondered if he was enjoying the sound which nearly moved him to tears” or if he was hearing the noise of “the last good things on earth bleeding out to their tragic end…? Or was it only the sound of his own minutes on earth trickling from the vein?” When Mack asks his brother what’s wrong, Leo tells him, “it’s It’s a certain darkness in the beginning that’s just radiated all the way through. It’s about a weight to carry.” Mack reveals that he feels that way too, but Leo, incautious, says that his brother never lost their father, because “you didn’t ever have him to begin with.”

The hardening and softening of feelings continues, and the siblings grow irritated and weary of this pattern. At one point, as they travel through Montana and settle down to camp in Glacier National Park, Leo encounters a group of Mennonites. They are clad in 19th-century clothing, eat out of cans, never seem to speak or laugh or smile, and have children who look at the brothers in fear. Leo slips into characteristic darkness, expressing a desperate, seemingly empathic sadness. Mack responds with, “will Will you stop with the sad.” One wants to add “already!” Readers are likely to feel a similar weariness and irritation at Leo, and yes, at Austin Ratner too, for letting all of this go on far too long. We’ve been told or shown repeatedly that Leo goes through a series of unrealistically self-raised expectations and crushing disappointments. Enough.

This complaint, important though it is, ought not to divert readers away from an otherwise well-crafted novel, which like Ratner’s “The Jump Artist,” helps us see that one cannot easily overcome painful memories, or even the disturbed patterns of thought that pain elicits. For deeply troubled individuals to rise above their suffering, and to be joyous is, as Ratner has said elsewhere, “an art.” This implies, of course, that it is not impossible. The extraordinary Philippe Halsman, without transcending his pain entirely, achieved joy. Perhaps Leo will too.

Gerald Sorin, a professor of American and Jewish studies at the State University of New York, New Paltz, is author of the newly published “Howard Fast: Life and Literature in the Left Lane” (Indiana University Press), winner of the National Jewish Book Award.

'In the Land of the Living,' by Austin Ratner.Credit: Courtesty, Little and Brown
The author Austin Ratner.Credit: Courtesy Little, Brown

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