Golem Song by Marc Estrin

Golem Song wears its Joycean ambitions on its sleeve, beginning with an homage to Ulysses: “Stately? No. Ahh, but plump? Decidedly.” Like Stephen Dedalus before him, Alan Krieger aims “to forge in the smithy of [his] soul the uncreated conscience” of his Chosen People. And if Joyce distanced himself coolly from Dedalus’s romantic ideals, Marc Estrin is fascinated by a more urgent problem: how easily ethnicity, and even the identification with an ethnic history, can tip into intolerance and violence. Alan Krieger, self-styled arbiter of Jewish identity, is a charming monster — omnivorous reader with apparently perfect recall, consumer of White Castle burgers and Reddi-Wip, racist, paranoiac, and, at least in desire, a mass-murderer. Oh, and he’s frequently hilarious.

The novel recounts the collapse of Alan Krieger who, at the beginning of the novel, is reminding a psychotic patient to pray, “OH LORD, MAY I REMEMBER ALWAYS THAT MAN AND GOD ARE NOT ONE”. By the end, he will have anointed himself deliverer of the Jews, a latter-day messiah come to defend his people from the irrevocably rising tide of black culture and black bodies. When we meet him, he is juggling two women, Deborah, a Jewish social worker, and Ursula, a German (!) psychiatrist. When we finally part ways with Alan, both women have left him, both for the same reason. Alan tries to teach Ursula the ways of Jewishness, borrowing heavily from Arthur Naiman’s Every Goy’s Guide to Common Jewish Expressions. Ursula realizes pretty quickly that, for Alan, the distinction between goyish and Jewish amounts to “hav[ing] all the good people for [him]self”. She observes, “This is all your verdammte Chosen People bit come home to roost. It’s what gets you in trouble all the time”. Deborah stays with him longer, until he tries to re-stage a kind of reverse Kristallnacht by transforming himself into a golem.

Estrin gives Krieger’s racism all the usual motivations: frustrated desire; fear; economic displacement (he’s passed over for promotion at work by a black woman, and ultimately fired after mock-threatening to castrate an immobilized black patient); paranoia; a Charles Bronson-style response to the Nation of Islam’s casual anti-Semitism. What keeps this from dissolving into clich√© is Estrin’s vital sense of how easily smart people can delude themselves into thinking they are beyond bigotry. Krieger is so effortlessly smart, self-deprecating, and ironic at the novel’s beginning that it can be difficult to trace when, exactly, the irony stops, or when his self-deprecation turns into a thinly disguised self-aggrandizement.

The novel centers on a key binary, which Alan imagines in three related forms: that between ethics and reason, on the one hand, and passionate, unreasoning godliness on the other. Krieger’s favorite shorthand for this binary is the distinction between Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, though it also emerges as Talmud versus Kabbalah and, in more elaborated form, as the difference between pacifist and violent Judaism. Sometimes all three forms seem to coalesce:

Your father is an Enlightenment dupe. How can anyone prefer [Tolstoy’s] lawful, rational universe to Dostoevsky’s anarchic, mystical, hallucinatory one? We’re ruled by Zohar, not Talmud! Your father thinks the peasants are noble? No, the peasants are sick, violent, and corrupt to the soul … And the fucking irony is that Tolstoy, may his name be erased from the Book of Life, set himself up as a god. He challenged God — while Dostoevsky groveled in front of Him. God, that is. Makes me want to puke.

If the peasants are “sick, violent, and corrupt to the soul,” then it is a very quick step to desiring their extermination. Alan invokes Judaism’s ancient heroes, especially Joshua, as a model for “a new testament — and I’m not talking about Paul’s epileptic ravings and Jesus’s mishegas — I’m talking the norm of a new kind of Jew, no more bent-over rabbis but patriotic, bronzed warriors, kicking ass and transvaluating values. Its time for the Viconian age of the post-schlimiel!”. This is, in effect, a genocidal eschatology, and Krieger is quick to apply its maxims. His very definition of a “new kind of Jew” demands that he find appropriate objects of slaughter. The allegorical relations of Krieger’s outlandish claims to, say, American or Middle Eastern politics are pretty evident. But this novel’s appeal is not simply allegorical — don’t miss the wildly comical confrontation between the real-life philosopher Martha Nussbaum and Krieger over the question of disinterested rage as an ethical stance.

Readers will perhaps be tempted to identify Krieger with Estrin. In the novel’s original form, this apparently would’ve been easily done: Estrin has told Robert Birnbaum in an interview that many of the novel’s revisions were expressly directed at signaling authorial distance from his creation. More sophisticated readers will grant that Estrin and Krieger and pretty different, but infer that perhaps Krieger is a kind of projection of Estrin’s id. Estrin winks at this reading in the novel: Krieger’s hated brother, Walter, is a violist who lives in Vermont and who is a staunch critic of Israeli policy — who believes, in fact, that “the State of Israel, morally bankrupt and mortally endangered by its victories, has triumphed over Judaism” an opinion that reduces Alan to “actually foaming at the mouth.” The joke here is that Estrin is a cellist, who lives in Vermont, and who is an activist, in part with Vermonters for a Just Peace in Palestine/Israel. Estrin has created a protagonist who would presumably hate him.

But it would be a mistake to reduce this novel to a kind of metafictional game, no matter how intellectually or psychologically rewarding. Estrin claims in an author essay on his website that the novel was inspired by a real phone call:

Back in late ’96, I think, I received a phone call from someone in NYC, asking me to buy him a high-powered rifle with a telescopic sight, as these were easily obtainable in Vermont. “Why?” I asked. “So that I can kill black people in the park from my window.”

This phone call, Estrin claims, was the event that goaded him into fiction, as he tried to imagine the possibility of a race war in the United States. Although Golem Song is his third published novel, it was once his first completed manuscript. And while “impending race war” no longer seems to top anyone’s political agenda, this hardly makes Golem Song irrelevant: Its dramatization of just how easily confidence that one has been chosen by God can drive one into ethically dubious aggression should be familiar to anyone paying attention to American proponents of the Iraq War. The problem of false messiahs is, in a post-9/11 world, not especially a Jewish problem; rather, the temptation to messianism has become a difficult geopolitical question.