Set largely among the Jewish community of inter-war New York City, this is a beautifully-told collection of scenes from Morgenstern’s life. The tricky ground of writing the advice column for a provincial Yiddish daily; successes during, and hard times after, the Depression; a position at the top of his craft as a labour specialist in the New York City Yiddish press – these and many more form a portrait of “a fundamentally decent man in morally perplexing situations”.
“I’ve been working on a series of stories about the character I call “my father” – loosely based on my own father – for about 30 years…I wondered if I could use the character in other situations. [One] story had begun with a spark of truth – a story my father had told many times about a foolish man he’d once known – and the spirit of my father.
“All the stories in the series walk that precarious tightrope between memoir and fiction…“I worked hard, with the stories’ structure and a sort of old-fashioned expository style, to make them feel like memoir – like truth.”
On the surface, award-winning Saskatchewan-based author Dave Margoshes’s latest offering is a beautifully written collection of biographical stories about his father’s life. Except that the stories are fiction. Although based, says Margoshes, on “a seed of truth” and imbued with “the persona and personality of [my] father”, they are all fiction.
The result is a selection of carefully crafted tales, written over a number of years, which relate various incidents in his father’s life. Margoshes says he “worked hard, with the stories’ structure and a sort of old-fashioned expository style, to make them feel like memoir — like truth…[he] also worked hard to imbue these stories with a tension created by that unstated question of how the narrator came to know not just the stories, in their broad strokes, but the fine details.”
He succeeded. At first I was consciously trying to work out what was true but I soon found myself enveloped in the stories. Most of the book is set in New York City in the early decades of the twentieth century. Margoshes crafts an almost sensory experience for the reader through his easy familiarity with street names, snippets of geographical and sociological detail and a sense of the community that lived there during that time. Harry Morgenstern is a reporter on The Day, the Yiddish-language daily that relates “the toils and joys of Jewish life in New York”. Although he dabbled in other types of journalism, even writing an advice column at one stage (as related in The Wisdom of Solomon), most of the book concerns Harry’s work as a labour journalist covering the often tumultuous world of unions and strikes.
From the opening lines of each chapter, my interest was piqued. “Feathers and Blood” begins: “One day in the spring of 1927, on the same day that Lindbergh was crossing the Atlantic, a young woman by the name of Rebeccah Kristol sent my father a letter from Cleveland with the message: ‘Now.’” I dutifully swallowed the hook of a master storyteller and read on to discover the reason behind the enigmatic letter. Another story, “The Proposition”, begins with the words: “’I did something stupid,’ the rabbi told my father,” and I was immediately plunged into the dilemma of Lev Bronstyn with his “long, often damp nose and prominent ears which combined to make his head appear larger than normal”.
Margoshes’ characters come to life through his detailed descriptions. Harry’s friend, the bookseller Fushgo, for example, is described as “an older fellow, permanently shaded grey from the settled dust in his shop.” Even the dubious Shmelke is given a poignancy as Margoshes describes how he “sighed deeply, the breath rattling through his chest like a cold wind through dead branches”.
I found A Book of Great Worth a captivating read and I was delighted to be introduced to Dave Margoshes’ father. In a fictional sort of way.
I read A Book of Great Worth, a collection of short stories by American-born, Regina-based writer Dave Margoshes just after some short stories and novels by Don DeLillo. The contrast in style and content could not have been greater. DeLillo uses contemporary language and references to depict the surface of the world today, almost, it seems, as it is becoming the world of tomorrow. Beneath the smooth surface if the well-chosen words and the rhythms of modern speech lies a seeming reality of chaos, random chance and meaninglessness.
While I enjoy the ride of reading fiction of this sort, I am biased in favour of Margoshes’ short stories of a world that not longer exists: the secular Yiddish world of newspapers, union politics, petty gangsters and the entertainment business in New York and the northeast states.
It’s a background I am half-familiar with, having grown up the son of an immigrant tailor in Toronto from the late-1940s to the mid-‘60s, the tail end of an era when Yiddish-speaking men played clobyush and poker while smoking cigarettes and drinking beer or little shots of schnapps, and talking of politics and the latest scandals, in private homes, on weekends as picnics with their families, or in brief snatches at restaurants and cafes on Spadina Avenue or College Street.
Margoshes paints a loving portrait of New York’s equivalent of this world. His stories never descend into sentimentalism, but this world’s problems and negative aspects into proper context. Using his father or, as we later learn, a fictional character based on his father, he give us a series of related tales that centre on the ups and downs, generous gestures and foolish mistakes of a Yiddish newspaper reporter whose dream is to become a novelist.
We are plunged into the midst of this world in the opening sentence of the first story, “The Proposition,” when Margoshes writes, “’I did something stupid,’ the rabbi told my father.” How the narrator’s father, Harry Margoshes, known as Morgenstern, solves the rabbi’s dilemma is amusing and Damon Runyanesque. We instantly get a feel for a man who is there to help his friends, but who is not a saint. The stories do not unfold chronologically. Rather, they spiral into the moments when the author’s avatar, the son of the journalist, is there to directly witness the interplay of human weakness and strength in the strivings of his parents in stories such as “A Book of Great Worth” and “The Family Circle.”
Margoshes displays a wonderfully delicate touch in controlling the technique of narration, transitioning from objective third person narrator with insight into a character’s thoughts, to reporter of his father’s actions, to creator of dialogue, to direct witness.
There is always an effort to understand and draw out the meaning of what is happening in the story and what it implies about the virtues and frailties of the characters. The tales are infused with a marvellous nostalgia, an affection for the past that has all but disappeared with the decline of the secular Yiddish world and its newspapers and radio stations. And yet, the stories also acknowledge the inevitability of the decline.
Although Margoshes’ father never became a novelist he wanted to be, the author, in his own explication of what he was about, concludes, “Most importantly, I tried to honour my father. The best way to do that, I knew, was to get it right.:
I believe he did get it right and highly recommend the book.