Identity, Geography, and an Overload of Nostalgia in My Mother’s Son

My Mother's Son could have been an unforgettable and evocative portrait of a lost era.

My Mother's Son
David Hirshberg
Fig Tree Books
May 2018

The temptation to throw everything into a debut historical novel seems hard for many writers to resist. The three elements of that category come with some great expectations. Add to this the element of cultural faith (in this case, Judaism) and the reader runs the risk of falling so deep into the weeds that the plot becomes secondary to linguistic.

The people at Fig Tree Books are thoughtful enough to provide a six language glossary at the end of My Mother’s Son that should give the reader a good sense of the intermingling worlds that writer David Hirshberg is exploring. There’s German, Hebrew, Irish, Italian, Latin, and Yiddish (and of course English) in this rambling recollection of an older man looking back upon his life and waxing in sometimes painfully precious poetic ways about the Mob, secrets revealed, Irish politicians, the legacy of the Holocaust, and the threat of polio.

The story of Joel, his brother Steven, their Auntie Rose and Uncle Jake in Boston of the early ’50s is the essence of melting pot Bildungsroman fictional memoirs. How (or if) this works as an accessible novel will depend solely on the patience of the reader, and more often than not even the most tolerant among us may soon find ourselves looking for a clear resolution of the many plot strands rolled out in all their glory. My Mother’s Son starts with a promising Prologue. Our narrator, Joel, was a radio monologist, perhaps in the vein of a more serious Jean Shepherd. He opens this narrative as he opened each of his broadcasts for 47 years:

“When you’re a kid, they don’t always tell you the truth. They tell others that they don’t want to hurt you or they think you won’t understand… it’s just easier if they tell you what makes them feel good, or what gets them out of a jam.”

This should probably give the reader a sense, in the first moments, about where Hirshberg will be going with this story. He flashes back to and stays in Boston, circa early ’50s. His Uncle Jake has “darkroom eyes”. Of Jake and Rose Joel reflects: “Those of you who’ve got relatives like this know what it’s like to have someone invade your heart…” Jake contracts polio, and it’s the start of the end for him. This is where Hirshberg starts incorporating an epistolary technique to his narrative that might make the reader wish he’d either highlighted those passages or removed them altogether. Jake was born in 1900 and came to the United States in 1938. How did he get here? That’s a large part of My Mother’s Son and the letters and diary entries written by Aunt Rose. They’re more compelling than some of the many sub-plots (like the Boston Braves moving out of the city) and at times they seem to be battling with the main themes.

Joel is a verbal rambler, a raconteur, wandering back and forth with his themes and ideas. This works for spontaneous monologists like Shepherd and other radio stars of the ’50s and ’60s (perhaps even Lenny Bruce) but that doesn’t necessarily translate well onto the page. This is why transcripts of radio shows like “The Moth” don’t always work as well when read in our own voice. Hirshberg would probably had been better served by focusing on the polio epidemic, or even the appearances of Thomas “Tip” O’Neill and John F. Kennedy glad-handing and campaigning through Boston in the early ’50s. (Hirshberg wisely doesn’t name Kennedy, but we know the identity of the handsome Senate candidate with a lot of teeth and hair.) There are too many thick paragraphs of telling, not showing, and it can get tiresome. (“We skipped… We saw… We waved…” and so on.)

Those familiar with Boston politics and the machinations between the Italians and the Irish will be entertained by Hirshberg’s references. That he calls the anti-polio fundraising campaign in his narrative “Timmy’s Fund” rather than “Jimmy’s Fund” (which is what it was and is) comes off as a little contrived, but it’s not a major offense. What works here is the fearless plunge into nostalgia. Hirshberg may be juggling more balls than necessary from start to finish, but he doesn’t hesitate with the memories. The only problem is not that he doesn’t know when to stop but rather that he doesn’t seem to understand why he should stop:

“To a kid, baseball is leather mitts, rubber balls, wooden bats, insignias, pennants, parks, and hot dogs. Polio is doctors, hospitals, shots…”

There are a lot of colorful characters in My Mother’s Son, and that’s not always a good thing. As with the urge to wax nostalgic, sometimes a writer should try to develop vibrant clarity in shades that aren’t always immediately visible. Take Uncle A: “He knew how to control his voice, speaking softly, then wham!” It’s never a good sign in any first person fictional narratives when exclamation points are used as a sort of shorthand to emphasize traits that should have been implied.

It’s these narrative strands of polio, the Boston Braves leaving the city for Milwaukee, “Honey Fitz’s grandson… a younger guy with a lot of hair, neatly combed, and a big toothy smile [John F. Kennedy], the mystery of Uncle Jake’s journey from Europe to Boston, and cultural identity as a minority (Jewish) in the heavily Irish Catholic city of Boston that make for a thick ride at times. Where is Hirshberg going with this book? What are the primary lessons we should take from this reading experience? At times the reader has to ride along with stories of escape and intrigue that should have been allowed more room to breathe.

The most ambitious novelists always seem willing to create a multi-textured world in which religion, ethnic culture, and atmosphere are combined with a sense of history place (Philip Roth and Michael Chabon did it much better with The Plot Against America, Houghton, Mifflin, Harcourt, 2004, and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, Random House, 2000) Hirshberg has done his homework here, but the reader might want to reads more about “The Guy on the Radio” and other late-night radio verbal ruminators on powerhouse AM radio stations like Boston’s AM juggernaut WBZ 1030. Just when we might want to read more about the radio pop culture of Boston in the ’50s, we get this powerful speech from Joel’s father, ruminating about the legacy of former Boston Mayor Honey Fitz, mother of Rose Kennedy, grandfather of the future President of the United States:

“Honey Fitz was the champion of the immigrants…. Irish, Italian, Jew… he was one of us… Look at your neighbors… What do you see? Do you see all redheads? Do you see all Roman noses? Do you see all dark eyes and olive skins? No… you see men from every walk of life in city government…”

Hirshberg allows this character to go on quite a bit, and the reader could imagine seeing a film version of this performed by Kenneth Branagh a la his “Henry V” St. Crispin’s Day speech, with a soaring score by Patrick Doyle. It also strains credulity more than a little to think that the Boston of 1953 (let alone the Boston of 2018) could be considered a city where all people had a seat at the table.

By the time we reach the conclusion of My Mother’s Son, the emotional plot twist is nicely realized. The only problem is how long it took to get there. The colorful complexity is rich, but it gets tangled in Hirshberg’s desire to prepare a meal none of us will be able to finish. The difficulty is inherent within the very premise of My Mother’s Son, wherein a radio monologist whose career spanned 47 years recounts the glory years of 1953. He was a young teenager in Boston, and everything was possible. Had Hirshberg and his editors been more willing to condense the narrative and focus on the strongest elements (politics, faith, polio, religion, baseball), My Mother’s Son could have been an unforgettable and evocative portrait of a lost era. As is, this novel is proof that too many ingredients will only serve to spoil a promising recipe.

RATING 6 / 10