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Squeezing the Slave Out
In a strange and moving scene in the opening chapter of Theodore Solotaroffs memoir, Truth Comes in Blows, he describes giving his father Ben a massage. Invoking the passage in Genesis where Noahs son Ham sins by looking upon his father in his drunken nakedness, Solotaroff explores the sources of his own queasy reluctance at the prospect:
In this case, the father would not be drunk but aged; a shrunken, rusted version of the imposing man Id known all these years. I didnt want to look upon, much less handle, that waxy skin, those pathetic loins. I wasnt touched by my fathers loss of his force; in some ways I welcomed it, it made him less difficult to be with. But I didnt want to put my hands on his body.
Nevertheless, he submits to his fathers request, and finds that his distaste soon changes to something quite different as the old man, whod worked all his life as a glazier, becomes like a contented child under his sons skillful hands, ooing and aahing with pleasure:
I concentrated on the task, fending off the memory of how broad this back had been, how these muscles had lifted his side of a plate glass window as though it were plywood and laid it on the cutting table. I did not want the anger and shame that came with the adjacent memories of the beatings these shoulders and arms had inflicted. I wanted this ooing and humming gratitude to continue, my fingers to go on gentling into his neck and his neck into my fingers the closeness that had finally, strangely come to us.
In its scrupulous honesty, its finely wrought perceptions and recollections (signaled by the opening epigram from Proust), its Jewish pride and awareness of heritage, this passage is characteristic of the quality of the memoir as a whole. It is characteristic also in its abiding commitment to what Solotaroff, a distinguished literary critic and editor, has elsewhere called "the incommensurability of experience and [the] struggle against it". This last quality is felt powerfully a few chapters later, after the author has found his fathers dead, naked body, collapsed in the living room of his home. The body is now just a corpse, and as such elicits no immediate feelings from the son, other than a mild revulsion. But his fathers eyeglasses, lying nearby on the rug, are another matter:
I picked them up, and then, as I held them and gazed at them, a tenderness of my own welled up, a sudden wind of feeling, bringing rain with it. I stood there, beginning to weep over the glasses, which unlike his corpse were producing my father who had died, the man who was almost blind without them
. His presence in me, and it was a presence, distinct and potent, was that of my father as a much younger man whom I would watch shave and wash in the morning when he would take off his glasses
. Who was this man who, even in death, could play my spirit like a pipe? How had the holes been put in that hed fingered? How had I managed to keep him from breaking it, as he had tried to do? Most of all, given my bitter memories of his business, which had cost me part of my youth, why had I taken away an old glass cutter Id found in the basement of his house, and put it in the jar on my desk that holds pens, pencils, and felt markers, the tools of my trade?"
The rest of the book is an attempt to answer all of these questions, which it gradually does though in a manner that remains faithful to "the incommensurability of experience" (and the struggle against it). That experience includes Solotaroffs New Jersey childhood, boyhood and youth, through the years of the Depression and World War II, in and around the city of Elizabeth; summers at the Jersey shore, and then working at a resort hotel in Long Beach; a stint in the Navy, where one of his Augean tasks was "diving the bilges" (manually cleaning out the sewage pipes) of his destroyer, in the heat of the Persian Gulf; his initiations in love, lust, and the life of the mind "the potential for refinement in myself"; and finally, acceptance to the University of Michigan on the GI Bill of Rights the first step in what is to be a distinguished career in letters.
Solotaroffs troubled and often brutal relationship with his father forms the spine of the memoir. At one point his Uncle Leo tells him:
"You come from a pathogenic family. Take it from me, Ive seen a lot of them and I know the Solotaroffs first-hand." He ticked off the names of four or five who had been institutionalized
ending with my cousin in Elizabeth, who he said had recently had a lobotomy
. I asked him what "pathogenic" meant.
"Path as in pathology, genic as in genesis conditions that breed disease. In this case schizophrenia. Its commonly found in families like the Solotaroffs where terror, fear, and delusion reign supreme, where hate is called love, falsehood is truth, tyranny is parenting, and so forth. Contradictions are maintained that eventually can tear a mind apart."
Although this memoir is much more than a study in family pathology, Theodores life with his father often does fit the bill. A selection of some of the low points will serve to bear out Uncle Leos diagnosis though not his prognosis.
When Theodore is 10, and already no stranger to his fathers heavy hand, he comes home ravenous from the playground and devours a chicken leg designated for his father.
"I put on my innocent face and waited for him to try to break me down. But he didnt. Instead he put his arm around me and said in his gentle voice, " I dont care about the chicken, I just want you always to be truthful with me." So like a little George Washington I began my confession. He removed his arm and suddenly slapped me with all his force, sent me reeling, and shouted, "If you ever steal food in this house again, Im going to break your spirit for good."
One day shortly before the Christmas holidays, young Theodore, snooping around in the back storeroom of The Shop (always capitalized in the book of childhood memory) happens upon a bicycle in a box. Hes been longing for a bike for years and, naively assuming its meant for him, cant resist taking it out and ogling it. He tries to put it back in the box as carefully as possible, but his tampering is inevitably discovered. The bicycle turns out to be a present from one of Bens employees, Frank, to his own kid.
The following Monday, Dad came home from The Shop in a fury. Had I been messing around with a box that had a bicycle in it, a box that was none of my business? My high hopes came down with a crash, my joy replaced by a familiar feeling of misery, the misery of the schlemiel, the screw-up, he reduced me to by his glare. Then he was on me, hands flailing. My mother wailed, "Not with your fists, Ben. For Gods sake, not with your fists." Overwhelmed, I went down to the floor for mercy, but he continued to pummel my shoulders and back as he shouted, "I dont have enough with that sneering son-of-a-bitch anti-Semite. You have to give him a stick to hit me with. My own good-for-nothing son. You didnt know it was Franks? Well, now you know, now youll know to keep your clumsy hands off things that dont belong to you." The hard blows rained down until my mother finally flung herself over me.
Theodore eventually does succeed in getting a bike -- no thanks to his father. A few years later, he's planning to use most of his bar-mitzvah gift money almost $60, in 1941 dollars -- to buy a Columbia, with balloon tires, just like the one in the box that Frank had given his son. But instead, his father pockets the money: "It will go for paying me back for that party of yours and my expenses at the shul." Resourcefully, Theodore has thought to stash some of the proceeds away hes not Bens son for nothing -- and with it buys his friends bike, telling his father that it was a gift from his aunts. "I told myself that his behavior wasnt the Jews fault."
For all his reliance on physical violence and intimidation, though, Ben Solotaroff -- unlike his athletic son -- proves to be a total klutz at sports. His sudden and fruitless appearance on the Shelley Avenue playgrounds baseball field for a father-son game is cause for another sort of pain for the son the pain of excruciating embarrassment, though not unmixed with humor, and even a certain pathos, in the retelling:
One evening I looked around from my intent fielding stance to see my father, of all people, wearing his nice-guy smile as he stood on the sideline, looking to play. It got even weirder when they put him into the game. "Play short," one of the fathers said. I could see that Dad didnt even know what he meant
. If only they had put him in right field. The first grounder went past him while he was still bending down. All the envy I had for the boys whose fathers put on a glove and played catch with them turned upside down and became acute embarrassment. Dad couldnt do anything right. At bat he had no timing and chopped down at the ball. Worse yet, he threw like a girl. Also he kept calling out dumb things he thought ballplayers still said, like "Slide, Kelly, slide"
. Around this time, I began to develop a fantasy that my real father was Lou Gehrig
Perhaps most affecting is an incident that shows not only Ben Solotaroffs unhesitating brutality and meanness of spirit, but also his young sons education in the cruelty of the world outside the family, where the goings-on have not passed unnoticed by the neighbors. When Theodore is about nine, his father sends him out to borrow a saw. From his neighbor Mr. Hinkel, the father of a schoolmate three doors down, he draws the following response:
"You tell that loud-mouthed old man of yours that I wouldnt give him the sweat off my balls. Tell him he dont belong in a decent neighborhood. Tell him to go back to Jew-land so we can have some peace and quiet around here."
He tries two more houses, but meets with no success. Returning home, he reports to his father:
"People dont like us in the neighborhood," I said, coming as close to the truth as I dared. "I think its because were Jewish."
"Is that so. Ive never seen any sign of that. Now you go and borrow a saw and dont come home until you do."
I tried several other houses, to no avail. It was as though saws had become as precious on Keats Avenue as the family car. I thought about asking people who lived too far away to hear Dads scenes and know about the divorce talk, but they wouldnt know who I was.
Then he gets sidetracked into a playground baseball game, and temporarily forgets about his errand:
By the time I remembered it again, the game was almost over. All too soon I was walking home by myself, walking toward his belt, already hearing his voice saying, "Heres something you wont forget."
But bad as they are, these painful memories are not the whole of the story. There are relaxed Sundays when Dad is in a good mood often after a matinee "nap" with Mom and takes the family for a drive into the countryside. In the evening, after a feast of "kosher specials," they gather around the Atwater Kent radio and listen to the Sunday night comedy shows. There are also day-long father-son "scouting" hikes for the Union County Hiking Club, and one in particular, into the Orange Mountains in late October, where they cook steaks on an outdoor grill and Ben tells woodsmans stories about roughing it in the High Sierras: "When I saw him so sharing, so relaxed and hardy in his blue parka, so carried away by the story, he seemed like the different person hed been in California and a real father after all."
But though the father-son conflict provides the main thrust of the story, the book contains other important subplots as well, such as the authors emotional and intellectual kinship with his overpowered mother, who plays the piano, and as a girl had translated Cicero and Virgil in the kitchen, and as is "soft" and "dreamy" and educated and artistic as his father is "harsh" and "impatient" and unlettered ("Its your steps Im following in," he tells her at the end of the book, on his first trip home from college); his Cyrano-like efforts to overcome, through talent and humor and also his fists, the stigma of an unsightly nose ("the patch of ugliness in the middle of my face"), the result of a playground accident when he was five, for which his father refused to pay for medical treatment (as he also refused to pay, later, for the corrective operation made necessary by his sadistic stinginess); and, throughout the course of the story, his struggle a triumphant one, as instanced by this fine book and two earlier selections of critical writings to rise above his circumstances and make something of himself.
"To become a writer, to become anything worthwhile, Id had to squeeze the slave, as Chekhov put it, out of myself, drop by drop." Like Chekhov, whose father (born a serf) had compelled him to work in his grocery shop, the slave that Solotaroff had to squeeze out of himself was also largely the creation of his father, who forced him to work for years in The Shop, until Theodore finally quit in protest the summer before his senior year his first major step in making a life of his own, away from his fathers oppressive force. In an essay from an earlier collection, The Red Hot Vacuum, Solotaroff quotes the writer and critic Isaac Rosenfeld: "Some men are capable of rising out of their own lives
their only secret is a tremendous willingness they do not struggle with themselves." The first two sentences are certainly true of Theodore Solotaroff himself and the last not at all. This beautiful memoir tells the story of that struggle against the "slave in himself" as much as the tyrant who was his father. The profound, hard-won truth contained in the books equivocal title lies in the authors recognition not only that the acquisition of the truth is often sudden and painful; but also that out of a fathers cruelty can sometimes mysteriously come -- and did come, pace Uncle Leo -- not "pathology" but self-knowledge, and enlightenment.
Joshua Gidding is Assistant Professor of English at Dowling College on Long Island, where he teaches writing and literature. He has published a novel, The Old Girl (Holt, Rinehart, Winston, 1980), and is currently at work on a second novel. His interests include Marcel Proust, Romanticism, literature and philosophy, literature and education, and literature and computers. He has also published articles on Byron in The Byron Journal and Literaria Pragensia (forthcoming).