A girl on scholarship at a boarding school learns that her mother has died and sets out to reclaim the father who abandoned them. A young woman breaks away from her dependence on drugs and her rich drug-dealing lover. A woman attending the funeral of her mother, a refugee from the Holocaust, ruminates over the silences she was brought up with and still torment her.
These stories stand out in the new collection by Deborah Eisenberg, a writer who bumps between what she does beautifully and what she seems to feel she ought to do. Her gift is to chart the inner landscape of her woman waifs and the harsh weather that batters it. Cherishing is her miner’s lamp; by its light she makes her discoveries. She is weaker when she tackles evil, whether at home or abroad. Denouncing is a defective miner’s lamp; it loses her.
Her weakest stories, odd, backhanded displays of U.S. imperialism, depict a sense of estrangement and contamination haunting her Americans in Central America. Hanging over them is the suggestion of a spooky American government presence working with local oppressors.
Eisenberg writes better on home ground. “The Girl Who Left Her Sock on the Floor” presents Francine, whose mother convinced a prep school to admit her. With nose-ring and green hair, she tests the school’s starch and her roommate’s tolerance. Suddenly her mother dies; she goes alone to the funeral home. The undertaker hands her a box of ashes, and she is off to New York to find her unsuspecting father. A boulder has fallen on her; uncrushed, she muses on how the father’s life will change that night.
The protagonist of “Rosie Gets a Soul” abandons her Hollywood lover, drug-dealer to the stars, to start a clean life in the East. Jamie, an old school friend, takes her in and hires her. She is incompetent at living, let alone working.
The story takes a somewhat arranged course, but Rosie’s drug withdrawal is superbly portrayed. Everything is too much; the water in the bathtub hurts. Jamie, a lovely character, provides a yellow bath duck. Rosie struggles to “work up a little traction.” Her struggle for life seems briefly as epic as that of the first fish that ventured up on dry land.
The title story is a finely layered exploration of cultural values shifting from Europe to America, from one generation to the next, and of the different strategies of memory and forgetting after the Holocaust. The narrator conducts a mental argument with Peter, briefly the lover of the narrator’s mother, Lili. In the household maintained by Lili and her brother, Sandor, a brilliant pre-war Hungarian poet, nothing was spoken of the past they had escaped. Lili would break down sometimes; and the narrator recalls her own fears and confusions.
She puts the case for silence. Fleeing the 1956 Hungarian uprising, Peter made Sandor an American celebrity by advertising his lyrics as political resistance. The arguments are subtle and complex; the narrator recounts Sandor’s objection to being drafted by history:
“If no one was listening, at least no one misheard you. If what you made was of no value to anyone, no one stole it and went running off; no one bothered to colonize it and set up little flags. It was his home, he said, his work, and all I’m saying is that it seems very hard, that a man who was exiled so many times over was harried again, and in his most intimate refuge.”