A Kaddish for Inhuman Steadman
on June 05, 2012
I really like books that tell engrossing stories---that move along with an interesting, active plot. I like them more if the characters change in ways that make the story meaningful to me—that make the book more than an entertaining diversion. And, I like them even more if they are also funny. (As an example, Michael Malone's 'Handling Sin' is at the top of my list.)
When I happened across 'A Kaddish for Inhuman Steadman,' I was intrigued by the synopsis, but it seemed a bit improbable. A coming of age story set in rural Georgia wherein a Jewish refugee from Europe somehow leads the adolescent characters to an awareness that might transform their lives---this would be a tall order for even Flannery O'Conner.
But I must say that Mr. Levens manages it very well. It's a great, rambling story, a story that's hilarious in small ways and big ones, but that ends with the kind of change that moves the boys from bumbling adolescent yokels to a place of grace, repentance and a new self-awareness that is ultimately hopeful.
I once heard Tom Peters, the business guru, say that it's always important to remember that everyone has a story. That's especially true in novels, and everyone in Kaddish has a story that organically moves the plot along, and helps us understand the characters as they grow and change. The four boys, friends since childhood, who build a camp in the woods that is a shrine to their growing sexual awareness. The weight-lifting girlfriend and object of desire and lust. Her manically driven coach. The wise and Biblically grounded Jewish guide and guardian, father to one of the four. And there are plenty of both strange, and outright bizarre characters, too—types that are not unknown in Southern fiction. There's even a cat with an unlikely Biblical name.
This is a odd bunch to throw together in a small-town setting, but it's no stranger than any collection of four people trying to grow up. It's when their casual, thoughtless actions bear real-life consequences that the novel moves from just an entertaining book to a significant guide to how to live a better life.
The best thing about this book, though, is that it does this completely naturally--through the movement of the story itself. I'm in awe of any writer who can manage this kind of challenge as Mr. Levens does, and I'm eager for his next book.