This is the first question a marketer has to answer when evaluating a book proposal : who gives a rat’s crotch for the subject of this book, in this case an unknown man with a very bad temper? What is the target demographic? How effectively will this book serve its demographic’s particular needs and desires? What will make them buy it? Is it an uplifting tale of forgiveness, redemption? Why would anyone care about some schmuck named Irv?
I have no answer to any of these questions. I find my father’s life to be an endless, tragic puzzle. He is more compelling, and his motives more complex, than any invented character in a novel concocted by even the most devious writer.
Some friends, after hearing about my progress on the manuscript, the output of days spent mining my father’s life for lessons to apply to my own, gave me a book written by a Jewish guy who went back to Europe to find his family roots. He sifted through the family archives, talked to everyone, traveled back to the places where his family dodged Nazis, not all of them getting away. I read a few pages and was not surprised to learn that one of his grandparents had been very, very successful. This charming and dynamic refugee made a shitload of money and was amazing at promoting the family business, a hugely popular brand still raking in millions today.
The author was the grandchild and son of millionaires. I soon lost patience with the book. It appeared to be another story of an accomplished family who got hit hard but would not stay down. In Europe he uncovered fascinating details of this amazing family, I have no doubt. Some died in the Holocaust, the details are haunting– who lived and who died– but as I read all I could take in was that the author had won a lottery I did not, and he was the kind of fellow that fortune favors. After all, who is not interested in the story of a family that triumphed over horror to become fantastically wealthy?
My family was not so indomitable, though the few who’d emigrated to America and survived the massacres were strong-willed, often raved. They were angry, emotional, heavy drinkers. One became a millionaire (he was not, to my knowledge, a heavy drinker), most were working class people who worked hard long after the age of retirement.
If I had the finances and family backing to take a trip of family exploration I would find nothing in Europe. OK, that’s an exaggeration. I would likely find the actual ravine outside of Vishnevitz, to the northwest, where the tortured survivors of the tiny, cramped Vishnevitz ghetto were shot in the head and buried in layers one merciless night in August 1943. On my father’s side, the marsh across the Pina from Pinsk where, as far as we can tell, the benighted, ill-fated hamlet of Truvovich once stood, along with every blood relative on his mother’s side. Nobody I know has ever been able to locate a map marking the location of the god-forsaken shithole. If there are bones there still, as there were shards until recently blowing in the wind outside Vishnevitz, I’m not traveling thousands of miles in hopes of seeing them.
My father’s skeleton reminded me the other night that I have not shown, in almost 900 pages, more than a hint of his monstrousness.
“You know the old saw from every writing class you ever attended: show, don’t tell,” said the skeleton. “You refer to me as a monster, and I often was, sad to say, but you don’t make your reader feel the crippling punch in the stomach of that monstrousness. The unreasoning fear of getting rage instead of understanding, ruthless adversarial opposition instead of a needed conversation. Why were you always alone at any terribly trying time in your life? It was preferable to you to having a skilled enemy in your corner. Think about that, Elie.”
“Unless you make the reader feel my viciousness and abusiveness, you have no book, no story to tell. Think about it. I appreciate that you’ve pretty much taken the high road in the pages you’ve written. I’m touched that you found so much good in me, after I spent a lifetime ripping your heart out, and your sister’s heart, too. The reader has to understand the pain I habitually inflicted, has to feel it, to have any investment in the difficult journey I forced you and your sister to undertake.”
“See, you’re doing it again. Putting the insightful take in my mouth, which has been shut now for twelve agile, fleeting years. I’m dead. I can’t fucking speak. You can hear my voice, but only because you have that kind of imagination. Think about that, Elie, nobody can hear my end of our conversation. In fact, most people would find the whole notion of this chat ridiculous. You are trying to make something concrete that is very subtle, hazy, almost impossible to express. And still giving me all the good lines.”
Well, ironic as it may sound to you, dead man, my father and mother raised me to be a good person, a mensch.
“Oh, stop, Elie, you’re killing me!” said the skeleton of my father. “And don’t worry, you can cut that cheap laugh line in the next re-write. ” The dead man paused to sniff the breeze.
“The ‘next re-write’, now that’s funny!”