It’s not a laurel everyone strives for, but Zoe Heller has become a master of misanthropy. And on the stage of moral comedy, there are worse role models than Moliere’s 1666 masterpiece, “Le Misanthrope.”
Like her two previous novels, “Everything You Know” (2000) and “What Was She Thinking? (Notes on a Scandal)” (2003), “The Believers” features an unpleasant, outrageous, sharply funny character who derides and deprecates everyone she comes into contact with. This snarling misanthrope isn’t just difficult, she behaves monstrously. Yet Heller deftly turns her nasty, asocial, hyper-judgmental sarcasm into literature that is not just enjoyable but also ultimately moving and affirmative.
For the first time, Heller, a native Londoner, has set her fiction in her adoptive New York City. The year is 2002, shortly after 9/11 and shortly before the beginning of the Iraq war -- a time of acute anxiety and moral despair.
Heller creates an American family that is so breathtakingly miserable and dysfunctional it makes the royal Tenenbaums look happy. Her satirical portrait of the Litvinoffs -- deracinated, secular Jewish leftists -- bears faint echoes of early Philip Roth. But compared with her first two novels, Heller’s scathing irony is tempered -- or enriched -- in “The Believers” by her daring, in an age of cynicism, to write about people desperate for something to believe in. Her characters arouse our sympathy as they struggle between rationalism and faith.
Famous leftist lawyer Joel Litvinoff lives in a slovenly Greenwich Village town house with his wife of 40 years, transplanted Brit Audrey Howard. They have two grown daughters: chronically overweight social worker Karla, who’s unhappily married to a condescending, sanctimonious union organizer, and idealistic, forever disappointed, sharply critical Rosa, who is as disillusioned with her job at a program for at-risk teenage girls as she was with socialism after spending four years in Cuba. Rounding out the family is Lenny, a not fully recovered drug addict and ne’er-do-well. The Litvinoffs adopted Lenny 27 years ago, when he was 7, after his radical father died while constructing a bomb and his mother was sentenced to life in prison after killing a police officer while robbing a bank.
When 72-year-old Joel suffers a massive stroke at the start of a trial in which he’s defending an Arab American arrested on suspicion of Al Qaeda sympathies -- the end of “a long career defending pariahs” -- he’s left languishing in a coma for months. His wife is unwilling to pull the plug, and his tenacious heart is “that last, tactless guest at the party, unwilling to accept that the revels were over.” Fortunately, Heller’s novel never languishes, despite the sidelining of its central figure.
Joel’s fidelity to his family, we learn, was not absolute, but he never wavered in his lifelong devotion to leftist causes. His wife and children have not been so lucky in finding a sustaining object of faith. “The Believers” chronicles their struggles to center themselves in the aftermath of Joel’s stroke.
Audrey is a vivid character, outrageous and impossible, yet funnier and less sinister than Heller’s earlier misanthropes, including the pathologically needy Barbara Covett (played by Judi Dench in the successful 2006 movie adaptation of “Notes on a Scandal”). She is long disillusioned with parenthood but clings to faith in her husband despite his infidelities. Shortly after his stroke, she learns something about Joel she’d rather not know, which puts her in an even fouler mood than normal. And when Audrey is unhappy, she makes sure her misery has company.
Heller makes us taste the bile of Audrey’s bitterness. What started as a brash act to mask her insecurity as a teenage bride in a new country turns into expressions of “authentic resentments: boredom with motherhood, fury at her husband’s philandering, despair at the pettiness of her domestic fate.” She’s unilaterally profane, venomously cursing her husband’s former mistress, doctor and colleague. She harps on Karla’s weight, snaps at her best friend and rolls marijuana joints in front of her recovering son.
Audrey is especially toxic when she learns that Rosa’s search for something to believe in has led her to explore Orthodox Judaism. For a family that’s rejected not just Judaism but all religion -- they’re not just atheists but anti-theists -- this is the worst possible “punch to the collective family jaw” and “an act of parricidal malice.” Despite her Polish-Jewish background, Audrey unleashes a torrent of anti-Semitic barbs, calling her daughter “Queen of the Matzoh” and wondering snidely whether she’s learning to make brisket in her Jewish Studies classes.
Heller does a better job capturing the foreignness of Orthodox Jewish rituals -- including a Sabbath in Monsey, N.Y., at which Rosa is chastised for turning out a bathroom light -- than at conveying a clear sense of Rosa as a person. Of the three Litvinoff offspring, Karla is the most fully drawn, from her joyless marriage to her budding relationship with an Egyptian newsdealer.
Rosa’s discussions with a wise rabbi and Audrey’s nastiness lead to some brilliant verbal parrying, much enhanced by Heller’s keen reportorial skills and gimlet expatriate eye. Audrey’s hilarious, out-of-control Chinese takeout birthday dinner deserves to become a classic in the annals of dysfunctional family gatherings. There’s pleasure too in many agile turns-of-phrase, including a description of listening to an old, slow talker, “waiting impatiently for the rest of the sentence to hobble its way down the rickety neural pathway.”
At once a novel of ideas, manners and morals, “The Believers” is an energetic tragicomedy with the bite not just of cynicism, but also heartfelt feelings.
McAlpin reviews books for Newsday, the Boston Globe and other publications.