AMONG THE LIVING by Jonathan Rabb

Image result for photo of savannah ga

(Savannah, GA)

Jonathan Rabb’s new novel, AMONG THE LIVING begins as a feel good story.  Holocaust survivor and former Prague journalist, Yitzchak Goldah arrives in Savannah in July, 1947 sponsored by his cousins Abe and Pearl Jesler.  The Jesler’s are very sensitive to Ike, the nickname Pearl creates, and his situation.  They invite him into their home and take care of all of his needs.  Ike has lost his entire family to the Nazi genocide and his mindset grows confused as he tries to adapt to new surroundings at the same time dealing with flashbacks from the camps.  It appears to be the making of a wonderful story, until different layers of the novel unravel.  Abe Jesler owns a shoe store in the Savannah business district and he invites Ike to learn the trade and work for him.  Along with Ike, Abe has a number of “negro” workers that include Calvin and Raymond.  As the story progresses, Abe who grew up in one of Savannah’s poorer sections needs to make a significant amount of money to satisfy his overly neurotic and loving spouse, Pearl.  Unbeknownst to Ike, Abe is involved with smuggling shoes from Italy through a southern organized syndicate, and over time he is drawn deeper and deeper into the mob’s machinations that call for increasing monetary payments and cooperation.  When Abe falls behind in his obligations a message is sent resulting in the brutal beating of Raymond.

The smuggling component is just one storyline.  Ike will met a World War II widow, Eva De La Parra, and against her mother’s wishes they begin a relationship.  Both Ike, the survivor, and Eva, the mother of a five year old boy, whose husband was killed in Germany in 1945 suffer from a deep emotional void and seem meant for each other.  As their relationship progresses a number of fissures emerge in Savannah society.  Then we learn that a person from Ike’s past seems to return from the dead.  Malke Posner, who survived Theresienstadt, the Nazi “model” concentration camp, turns up at the Jesler’s doorstep claiming to be Ike’s fiancée.

What dominates Rabb’s fine novel is social class inequality and prejudice.  At a time when “Jim Crow” dominates the Deep South we find a Jewish community where social circles seem to form around the type of Judaism that religious adherents aspire to.  First, are the somewhat religious conservatives that the Jeslers exemplify.  The second are Eva’s parents, the Weiss’s whose father is the editor of the town newspaper who are seen as “Temple Jews,” or as they are called, reformed.  This “ideological” conflict forms part of the background for a story that takes place at a time when Jews are finally leaving the displaced persons camps in Europe following their liberation from Hitler’s death camps, and in the Middle East Palestine is about to explode into a war between Jews and Arabs.  To highlight this, Rabb creates a scene during the Jewish New Year where both groups of Jews confront each other at the beach as they are about to engage in a Jewish cleansing tradition. Another fissure centers on race relations in the south.  The Jeslers, as do most wealthy members of the Savannah community employ Negro maids, in this case Mary Royal.  Her actions act out the subservient stereotypical maid as does the common language spoken by Raymond and Calvin.  In addition, Raymond confronts Abe Jesler concerning his rightful place in a business that he has worked in for over twenty years.

Rabb develops his plot through these dynamics and integrates well developed characters and a story whose highs and lows provoke many compelling questions.  This is Rabb’s sixth novel, and perhaps his best.

Image result for photo of savannah ga

(Savannah, GA)

YOUNGBLOOD by Matt Gallagher

(Author, Matt Gallagher)

Like all wars before it, the war in Iraq has spawned its own literature.  In Vietnam the war produced the likes of Philip Caputo and Tim O’Brien. Today as our current conflict has morphed into the war against ISIS, writers like Matt Gallagher have come on the scene with novels like YOUNGBLOOD, which takes the reader inside a platoon in the town of Ashuriyah, outside of Baghdad, when the optimism spawned by the “surge” gave way to skepticism about the war, and as we know the rise of ISIS and the American withdrawal in 2011.  When stationed in Iraq, Gallagher began writing in his own blog from inside the war that attracted a large following.  Military authorities eventually shut down Gallagher’s blog, but his new novel has allowed him to express many of the feelings and emotions of his characters, many of which, I am certain, are composites of the men he served with.

The narrator of YOUNGBLOOD is Lieutenant Jack Porter, and through his voice Gallagher expresses the view that “so little of Iraq had anything to do with guns, bombs, or jihads.”  The novel portrays a war that encompasses the locals and their lives, as they try and cope with a form of hell that has destroyed their way of life.  It comes across as a confusing and angry conflict which continues to this day with little understanding on the part of the people who are responsible for the mess that Iraq has become, as many of them are now calling for the United States to dispatch even more troops to the region.  The American mission after years in Iraq had evolved into, “clear, hold, and build, a motto that was extremely difficult to implement successfully.

(Author, Matt Gallagher inside a Stryker vehicle in Iraq)

Porter faces a number of obstacles as a platoon commander.  First, he had to deal with bribery and the overall corruption that existed.  American military payments were made to numerous groups including sheiks, both Sunni and Sh’ia, and militia leaders in order to combat al-Qaeda, and other groups to obtain their loyalty.  Further payments went to Iraqi families that were victims of collateral damage, even more money flowed to projects to rebuild Iraq’s infrastructure, but it seemed that little was being built.  Porter’s second problem was Sergeant Daniel Chambers, a military lifer who had already served tours earlier in the war.  Chambers had been foisted on Porter by his superiors and his demeanor and discipline became a threat to Porter’s command which undermined his relationship with his men.

Once Gallagher introduces his main characters we learn that Chambers may have been involved in the killing of two unarmed Iraqi citizens who were mistaken for jihadis the military was looking for.  Porter wants to prove that Chambers had violated the rules of engagement and begins to investigate the shooting in the hopes of getting rid of the ornery sergeant.  A second major plot line is Porter’s relationship with Rana, a local sheik’s daughter.  Rana, who was involved with an American soldier who converted to Islam, and wants to marry her, is killed.  It is left for Porter to pick up the pieces.  As the novel evolves, Gallagher integrates past events as a means of trying to understand the present.  His relationship with his brother Will, a West Point graduate who served in Iraq, and his girlfriend Marissa, who seemed to have drawn away from him, play on Porter’s mind throughout.

The reader acquires a strong sense of what it is like to be a soldier in Iraq.  The fear of death, having the Stryker vehicle you are riding on set off an IED.  The friendships that result in sick jokes, games and other amusements that fill the void of limited down time.  The exhaustion of carrying 60 pounds of body armor and weapons during patrols or having to maintain a sharp focus for long periods as they try and survive.  Gallagher writes with verve and humor as he tries to convey Porter’s experiences, who is fully aware that no one will understand him, not his brother Will or his girlfriend Marissa back in the United States.  Porter must live with his memories as he faces the reality of war each day, a war where he exhibits empathy for the Iraqi people he comes in contact with, and the men he commands.  The end result is that Gallagher portrays the horror and inequities of war, and how it has eroded the fabric and foundation of Iraqi society.  After one puts the book down one wonders what will be the final chapter for Iraq as a nation, as it continues to struggle with sectarianism, a corrupt political system, the constant threat of violence, and the legacy of the American invasion.

(Author, Matt Gallagher serving in Iraq)

WARBURG IN ROME by James Carroll

(Vatican City, Italy)

As a person who has enjoyed James Carroll’s work over the years whether he was presenting his history of the Church and Jews in CONSTANTINE’S SWORD; the difficulties of a father and son relationship during the Vietnam War in AN AMERICAN REQUIEM; or an exploration of the Pentagon and the expansion of American power in HOUSE OF WAR, I have grown to expect an absorbing read each time I pick up one of his books.  Carroll, who is an ordained Catholic priest who left the priesthood to become a writer, is also a novelist and his newest book, WARBURG IN ROME did not disappoint.  Carroll’s historical research and clerical background allowed him to explore numerous plots in his latest effort as he struggled with the role of the Catholic Church and its bureaucracy during and after World War II.   The story centers on David Warburg, a Yale University trained lawyer who worked in the Treasury Department and is assigned to head the War Refugee Board (WRB) in Rome in 1943.  We learn that the reason Secretary of the Treasury, Robert Morgenthau, Jr. appointed him was that he believed he was part of the Jewish Warburg banking family which would solve a number of political problems for the Roosevelt administration.  The fact is Warburg is from Burlington, VT which came as a surprise to many politicians and bureaucrats.  Since the appointment could not be withdrawn, the New England as opposed to the New York Warburg headed off to Rome to facilitate the removal of Jews from Nazi extermination camps.

The title WARBURG IN ROME is a misnomer as there are a number of characters who are as important to Carroll’s story as the new head of the WRB.  The story traces Warburg’s own personal voyage of faith and rediscovering his Jewish roots.  Driven by the world’s insensitivity to the plight of thousands of Jews who remained in European deportation camps following the war; with Palestine closed by the British, the United States closed by the State Department, Warburg’s journey progresses from casting his father’s tallit to opening his heart to a new found Judaism.  Warburg resigns from the WRB and begins working illicitly with the Jewish Defense Committee to break the “ratline” that Himmler had set up to assist Nazi higher ups attempted to flee Europe and reach Argentina.  Marguerite d’Erasmo in 1943 was the head of the Women’s and Children’s Committee for Italy.  After the Nazis seized Rome after Mussolini fell she worked in Red Cross refugee camps and hid records of Jews the remainder of the war to save them from extermination.  D’Erasmo personal voyage is as important as Warburg’s.  Her journey begins as a devout Catholic in Rome, morphing into a partisan fighter in Yugoslavia.  After witnessing the horrors of Croatian anti-Semitism and murder, she goes on to try and save women and children in a Nazi detention camp.  Failing to free these people from the grip of the Nazis she moves to Palestine and converts to Judaism.  Upon her return to Rome she gather’s intelligence to block Himmler’s escape route from Vienna, through Rome, on to Argentina using the Vatican as its conduit.  Other characters emerge that are part of the novel’s core; Father Kevin Deane, sent by Archbishop Spellman of New York to Rome to oversee aid to refugees.  Giacomo Lionni, a partisan fighter in the Balkans nicknamed, “Jocko” devotes his life to saving Jews. General Peter Masters, at the outset a friend of Warburg, works at cross purposes with the WRB as he represents American intelligence agencies that are cooperating with the Vatican, Nazis, and Croats against the Soviet Union as relations with Stalin continued to deteriorate.  There are a number of characters who are part of the Vatican bureaucracy, Monsignor Tardini, the Director of the Pontifical Relief Committee, Cardinal Maglione, the pro-Nazi Secretary of State for the Vatican, and of course, Pope Pius XII who hated communism and did not want a victory against Hitler to be turned into a defeat by Stalin.

 

Carroll’s novel spends a great deal of time exploring the role of the Vatican after World War II.  The church did hide and assist many Jews, but it also hid many Nazis and facilitated their escape from allied hands.  The church was vehemently anti-communist and was involved in trying to over turn the allied policy of “unconditional surrender,” and make a separate peace with Germany in order to restore a Catholic Danubian Federation under the Hapsburgs as a bulwark against communism.  After the federation failed, the church worked to restore members of the Ustashe, the Croat Nazis to power in a new Catholic Croatian state that would be anti-Tito.  What stands out in Carroll’s narrative and dialogue between characters is that the reader is witnessing history and in a sense what the author has created is a history of the refugee crisis, the flight of the Nazis, and Vatican machinations to create an anti-communist coalition during and after World War II wrapped up in a novel.  Carroll’s book is sound historically and reflects tremendous research and through his characters presents the dilemmas facing allied policymakers after World War II in coping with the remnants of the Holocaust and how to deal with an emerging world power in the Soviet Union.

(Heinrich Himmler, the mentor for Father Ricardo Lehmann)

Carroll does a splendid job exploring the contradictions and diverse viewpoints following the war.  For example, Warburg and Mates clash over the probable Irgun bombing of the British embassy in Rome following Prime Minister Atlee’s expansion of refugee camps for Jews on Cyprus, as Jews were denied entrance into Palestine.  Warburg is incensed that the WRB is shut down because of Mates’ OSS (precursor of the CIA) accused him of only working for Jews.  Mates offers the usual anti-Semitic rationale that Jews were most likely to be communist and a security risk as refugees, so they should not be allowed into the United States or Palestine.  Understanding Carroll’s storyline is like peeling an onion as layer after layer of the plot and the background of each character is laid bare.  We see Father Ricardo Lehmann, a German priest assigned to the Vatican whose mentor was Heinrich Himmler.  Following Himmler’s suicide Lehmann works to maintain the “road out” using Vatican documents that allowed Nazi war criminals to travel from Vienna to Buenos Aires, with an assist from the Croatian Catholic network of Franciscan monks.

(Father Maglione, Vatican Secretary of State who assisted Nazis fleeing Europe after World War II)

The story itself presents numerous moral decisions that characters must make, decisions that in real life have been explored by historians for decades to try and ascertain the true motivation of historical figures during and after the Holocaust.  Carroll makes a valiant attempt at doing so through his own characters as he has done in previous works of non-fiction.  As the story draws to a close, Father Deane realizes that because of Vatican machinations many church officials were “in bed with Nazis.”  Deane tries to deal with what he has witnessed and cries out, “ Pavelic, Lehmann, Strangl the Treblinka commandant, for the love of God!  Living in our religious houses.  Nazis in monasteries and convents.  Vichy collaborators protected.  The protectors promoted.  Gestapo killers with Vatican passports.  The church welcoming them in Argentina.” (353)  He prepares a report of Vatican culpability, and he knows it will go nowhere as he must submit it to Vatican authorities, raising moral questions he cannot deal with and comes to the conclusion that the church itself is not guilty, but church officials are.  The book provokes a great deal of thought on many levels and I wondered what Vatican policy might have been during this time period, if the current head of the Papacy, Pope Francis had been in office.  WARBURG IN ROME is an exceptional read.

THE LAST MAGAZINE: A NOVEL by Michael Hastings

(President Bush’s “Mission Accomplished Speech,” May 1, 2003)

Recently, I saw an interview with Michael Hastings’s widow in which she described her husband’s last book published soon after his death.   I looked forward to reading it as her comments about the subject of the novel were very appealing, and having read some of his previous articles in Rolling Stone and Newsweek, I immediately picked up a copy of the book.  However, having just completed it, I am a little disappointed.  THE LAST MAGAZINE: A NOVEL encompasses a number of story lines.  The most important seem to be the battle that the print media faces as it tries to deal with the digital world of websites and blogs.  In addition, Hastings skewers the liberal media for its support of the invasion of Iraq in 2003.  Finally, there is the character, A.E. Peoria, a journalist on the international desk for The Magazine, and his journey to achieve personal fulfillment.  Employing a cynical and sarcastic methodology the novel is at times reminiscent of the works of Kurt Vonnegut, but it does not have the depth or the symbolism that one would hope for.  I admit that there are a number of humorous asides, like describing the Clinton-Lewinsky episode as the “Pentagon of blow jobs.”  Or analyzing the problems of an American occupation of Iraq after the invasion, as Hastings concludes that “no one ever accuses America of being a nation of historians.”  Despite many astute comments, the novel is missing a degree of cohesiveness despite the fact that the narrator, who happens to be named Michael Hastings periodically, inserts his personal situation into the story as he as he writes a novel.

Hastings, the author, not the character integrates historical events throughout the dialogue.  In discussing the promise of the Bush administration that the invasion of Iraq would take three months and that American troops would be home by Christmas, Hastings brings up Lyndon Johnson’s similar promises during the Vietnam War, promises made by Pope Gregory VIII during the Third Crusade, and Napoleon’s promise as he invaded Russia in 1812.  Hastings historical observations are dead on as his characters discuss the American occupation of Iraq in relation to Japan and Germany after World War II.  The problem is that those successful occupations do not apply to Iraq as their situations were totally different.  The only similar occupations were in Vietnam and the Philippines, and we all know how that turned out.

The subject that Hastings is most concerned with is decisions that THE MAGAZINE’S editorial staff made in covering of events related to the Iraq War.  The main characters involved are Nishant Patel, an intellectual snob of Indian descent, who is the international editor; Sanders Berman, a southerner, who is THE MAGAZINE’S leading reporter; Michael Hastings, an intern; and A.E. Peoria, an investigative reporter whose personal identity crisis interferes with his work.  As with most of the American media in the run up to the invasion of Iraq in March, 2003, the editorial board of THE MAGAZINE goes all in for war.  The arguments that are presented ring of Cheney, Rumsfeld, and the neo-con crowd as Patel and Berman prepare articles researched by their intern to support the invasion.  The episode dealing with the torture and demeaning of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib highlight Hastings condemnation of the liberal media.  When the magazine places the story on its cover it is confronted with Bush administration denials and as anger across the country increases because of the articles lack of patriotism, in conjunction with the predictable worldwide Islamic backlash resulting in numerous Iraqi deaths, THE MAGAZINE and its editors go into full damage control.  To save its reputation Patel and Berman choose Peoria as its scapegoat send him to appear on CNN which results in a media disaster.   Peoria seems to apologize for the cover and article while being interviewed by a “Wolf Blitzer type” and the magazine follows up by instituting “new regulations to prevent this kind of mistake from happening again.” (211)  Peoria is suspended and he continues his emotional spiral that in the end will lead to what appears to be personal renewal. During the episode Hastings, the character, leaks the truth of the story, but it gets little press as the governor of Virginia is caught receiving a “blow job” on an Amtrak Acela train.

Hastings, the character, emerges once again in relation to Peoria’s resurrection at THE MAGAZINE.  It seems that the magazine’s darling, and acting editor in chief, Sanders Berman is a guest on the Don Imus radio program.  When Imus describes the Rutgers women’s basketball team as “nappy-headed hos,” Berman seems to snicker at the comment, and now is being branded with the broad brush of racism that encompasses Imus and his staff.  After three years on the syndicated program, Berman is incredulous that he didn’t know that Imus was capable of such remarks.  THE MAGAZINE cuts its relationship with the radio talking head, but it needs to refocus public attention away from Berman.  Enters Peoria with a story about an Iraqi war hero who was wounded during the invasion in 2003 and as a result lost the lower region of his anatomy and became a transvestite, or as Hastings, the  writer, calls a “sheman.”  Peoria who had saved this soldier, Justin and/or Justina’s life during the invasion, and becomes his or/her lover has this story that could save THE MAGAZINE.  At the same time, Hastings, the character, the mole inside THE MAGAZINE fills in on a blog entitled, wretched.com as a hedge against losing his position at the magazine, or as wretched.com’s head Timothy Grave calls “dead trees.”

(ICIS execution of Iraqi citizen, June 12, 2014)

In the current unstable political climate in Iraq and the threat of ICIS, Hastings reminds us of what a mistake the invasion of Iraq was and the tragedy that has resulted.  He also sends a message to the liberal media’s complicity in the 2003 invasion.  The book is encapsulated best by James Rosen in his review in the June 16th edition of the Washington Post, “Here is the duality that appears to have gripped Hastings most profoundly: America as Good vs. America as Not Living up to the Hype of Good.  He sees this in the Green Zone and in Columbus Circle.”