The Pain of the Scars That Won’t Heal

The Book of Daniel
E.L. Doctorow

I grabbed this book as I walked out the door for what, to date, is only the second Jersey shore vacation I’ve ever taken. During the first, way back in 1976, I heard a priest (my mom didn’t believe in suspending Catholic rules) deliver a sermon built around E.L.Doctorow‘s recently published book, Ragtime.

If my mom had any inkling what was actually in that book I’d have never been allowed to purchase it as my souvenir from that trip. Historical fiction, though, made (and makes) sense to me in a way that other literature doesn’t. Maybe the skeleton of fact helps me move past the obtuseness that otherwise keeps me wondering if I’ve missed what the author is actually saying.

In a typical obsessive rush after that first book, I grabbed lots of Doctorow. Most of it failed to grab me and went missing over time. There were a few that clicked–Billy Bathgate, probably because it reminded me of tales my grandfather told, The Waterworks, which was my literary penance for reading The Alienist–but most fell flat. Why I kept carrying this one around still puzzles me.

And so I found myself well below the Mason-Dixon line sharing at least a portion of my consciousness with a gaggle of Jews from the Bronx. That might suggest a lot of things but this not a story of the children of immigrants rising unless you consider infamy a state to rise to.

Imagine doing this as a family.

When we meet him, Danny Isaacson (or is it Lewin?) is standing at the side of the New England Thruway with his thumb out, his infant son and near-child bride beside him. It’s Memorial Day weekend and he’s in a rush to get to Worcester, Mass. As near as I can tell it’s 1967 which makes the novel somewhat contemporaneous in its drafting (it was first published in 1971).

This being the era in which hippies emerged, Danny doesn’t exactly fit that bill but he’s not exactly clean for Gene either. He is, in fact, a graduate student working to finish his Ph.D. at Columbia. He partakes in some of the license of his time, place and status, but  at root he’s confused.

Confusion doesn’t adequately describe Danny’s mental state,  nor that of his sister Susan, whom he’s rushing to see. There’s a good reason for that which might even explain why hitchhiking on an Interstate en famille seems like a reasonable thing to do. Because in a way, Danny and Susan never had a chance.

Although such things lie increasingly outside the experience of First World upper-middle-class educated readers, having one’s childhood shattered is not uncommon. What is uncommon is having the government–your friends, neighbors and countrymen organized into the state–act as the agent of that destruction. As is turning such children, sequentially, into political props and then into other people, as though action bears no consequences.

For some reason. media frenzies seem to move from right against left, sparing no one.

The Isaacson children, you see, aren’t products of lamentable but everyday government incompetence. In their present condition, they are the human flotsam of a prosecution that resulted in the execution of their parents for treason. Brilliantly, Doctorow maintains a studied ambiguity about the alleged crime. We never see Paul and Rochelle, the children’s parents, engage in anything remotely clandestine though we do see the hysteria of the times. Instead, we see two children, who can’t possibly understand what is happening then or, even a little more than a decade later.

Stevie Wonder said when we believe in things we don’t understand,we suffer. Both Issacson children suffer despite having been adopted by a solidly professional Jewish couple, Robert Lewin, a law professor, and his wife, and relocated to Newton, Mass. to get a fresh start. The Lewins are there when Danny, Phylis and the baby arrive at the Worcester State Hospital, where Susan has been taken after a failed suicide attempt in a Howard Johnson’s at a rest stop on the Mass Pike.

Much of what follows is Danny trying to come to grips with his life. That sounds typical but the guy is a human wreck. He’s almost completely innerly focused, one half of a dyad the likes of which the world has never seen and who can only possibly understand each other. Susan turns her destructive impulses on herself when that same energy isn’t going into rebuilding the world and finishing the work of revolution. Danny is an aspiring unfocused self-absorbed academic with a cruel streak usually directed at others. He’s more than willing to excuse his more extreme cruelties by reference to his childhood, a transactional psychology that allows for a lot of bad behavior.

Do real revolutionaries occupy Ivy campuses or put their lives on the line?

In a way that’s appropriate because this is a novel of oblivion. Danny and Susan’s identity: obliterated when they became Lewins. Paul and Rochelle: obliterated when they are executed. A typical childhood of baseball games and family outings: obliterated by the Marxist politics of parents who trafficked in the romantic revolutionary promises of Marxism, dissecting the consumer culture around them as tawdry and who don’t just attend a Robseon concert that turns into a riot, but who almost heedlessly jump into the middle of the fray. Parents who think a child wants to read of the glories of the five-year plan.

The teachers of my children seem obsessed with unreliable narrators. Danny isn’t just an unreliable narrator, he’s a completely erratic one. It’s clear, throughout, that the teller of this tale is Danny. Yet the voice is constantly wandering. Sometimes it’s in the first person. Sometimes it’s in the third. Sometimes it stops short and switches from one to the other. Sometimes the language takes on the arid tone of professional scholarship in which, by design and custom, the personal presence is also obliterated.

There are, probably, dozens of opening paragraphs scattered through the book, so many I gave up counting. There is no neat ending. In fact, three are proffered and, just for good measure, some revised Bible verses are offered in case none of the others satisfy.

Julius and Ethel Rosenberg

On the history, as it was known at the time, Doctorow is as solid as he can be. ( I saw a Tweet describing him as our finest recent historical novelist, which seems fair.) Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the couple tried and executed for passing secrets of the atomic bomb to the Soviets were first-generation children of immigrants who met at City College. They were young Communists, not unusual during the Depression. They did live in the Bronx and had two children–both boys. They died in the electric chair, a harrowing, detailed description of which Doctorow does not spare the reader.

History as it is now known has not been kind to anyone who wanted to believe in the Rosenberg’s innocence. You can look into that for yourself. For me, the unsettling questions remain in play. Should the state have the power to end a life? Can parents, should parents risk the next generation to benefit this one? When the stakes are high, are some human futures expendable?

There are no easy answers.

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