Kalooki Nights by Howard Jacobson

LITERARY REVIEW                                 August 2006

(Jonathan Cape £17.99)

Maxie Glickman, the narrator of Howard Jacobson’s latest novel, is a caricaturist, who declares of his craft that ‘I’m meant to concentrate only on what’s salient’, and to Glickman, as to his creator, the only salient characteristic of Jews is their Jewishness.

Having explored various aspects of Jewish life in earlier novels, Jacobson now turns to the nature of Judaism itself and, in particular, what it means to be a Jew in a world tainted by Auschwitz.  In a series of variations on this central theme, Maxie examines the impact of being Jewish on his family and friends and its ambiguous attraction to his two Gentile wives.

Maxie grows up in the Manchester suburb of Crumpsall Park in a household consisting of his father, Jack, his mother, Nora, his sister, Shani, and his mother’s half-brother, known as Tsedraiter Ike to distinguish him from the four other Ikes in their immediate circle.  Jack, a former boxer with a predisposition to nosebleeds, is described as ‘the most Aryan Jew in Manchester’.  He deplores any expression of religious feeling and hates to dwell on the Holocaust.  It’s essential for his view of himself as a modern man that he dissociate himself both from the medievalism of the Ghetto and its tragic fate.

Nora, a beautiful woman whose ankles at eighty still arouse Maxie’s admiration, remains a shadowy figure, despite the book’s taking its title from the games of kalooki she plays night after night.  Shani too attracts little attention until her love affair with Mick, an Irish sailor, who is as enamoured of Jewish culture as he is of her.  Tsedraiter Ike is the only observant member of the household, although he is later revealed to have a secret life which lies behind his frequent absences to sit shiva.

While the Glickmans pride themselves on their secularism, their neighbours, the Washinksys, are deeply orthodox.  Living in a shabby house that betrays their contempt for the material world, the Washinksys have two sons, Asher, a rabbinical student, whose love affair with the Christian Dorothy causes the family to split, and Manny, a strangely obsessive boy of whom one contemporary claims ‘It is because of him that they march us off to camps.’

Maxie tells us from the start that Manny has gassed his parents, making him ‘the only Jewish double homicide in the history of Crumpsall Park.’  He is locked up for more than two decades and, on his release, Maxie renews their acquaintance at the behest of a television producer who plans to make a film based on Manny’s crime.  Much of the novel concerns Maxie’s attempts to fathom Manny’s motives, to discover whether his madness was inspired by his brother’s defection, by brooding on the Holocaust (when arrested, he tells the police that he was simple following the SS officer Georg Renno, who claimed that ‘Turning the tap on was no big deal’), or by his faith itself, thereby confirming Manny’s view that religious orthodoxy is a ‘derangement’.

In the gaps between teasing out Manny’s story, Maxie relates key aspects of his art and life.  The former, apart from such aberrations as a stint copying the work of gay pornographer, Tom of Finland, has focussed on Jewish themes, notably his comic-book history of Jewish oppression, Five Thousand Years of Bitterness.  The latter is a deeply depressing sexual history, ranging from his adolescent obsession with Ilse Koch, the sadistic wife of the Buchenwald commandment, to his three broken marriages.  The first two are to Christian women who, in different ways, are obsessed by Judaism.  Chloe, his first wife, and her rabidly anti-Semitic mother are hard enough to take, but Zoe, his second, who weeps at concentration camp sites on a tour of Eastern Europe and yet tells the most vile Holocaust jokes poses a particular problem.  On any realistic level, neither her insensitivity nor Maxie’s tolerance of it carry conviction, and one can only assume that Jacobson is taking his cue from his protagonist who declares that ‘Caricature is a methodology for telling a greater truth.’

Kalooki Nights is a darkly complex novel written in starkly explosive prose.   Jacobson eschews emotional identification with his characters, presenting them rather as case studies for analysis and debate.  Towards the end of the book, the author-surrogate writes ‘In the end there are only two sorts of Jews… Jews who see the funny side of things and those who don’t.’  As in his earlier work, Jacobson stands firmly with the former, although the humour here is blacker and more mordant than ever before.