It’s the portrait of the artist as a young man (or, increasingly, woman). We still associate the artist’s novel with youth, from Young Werther to the opening line of Eileen Myles’s Inferno: “My English teacher’s ass was so beautiful.” Despite the real-life popularity of writing groups and artistic programs among those well past the typical college years, fewer are the fictional representations of artists who take up their implements in mid-life.
Enter Joey Krueger at middle age: financially successful businessman profiting from cleaning up industrial waste; commuting to a home where he sleeps in a separate bedroom from his wife; unaware that his property has fireflies. His first instinct is to go for the cheap hair dye. “No writer,” his mother, Bluma, tells him.
Here’s the thing: A writer is what he has to become after he offers to record Bluma’s life story for posterity and she forces him to put pen to paper. He takes a sabbatical from work to dutifully visit Bluma every day and get her words down. From here the plot alternates between Bluma’s early life and Joey’s grappling with it.
The daughter of a bootlegger and a morose shut-in, Bluma Goldberg grew up fast and street-wise on the wild edge of Prohibition-era Chicago. Her one respite from tough life was her better-off cousin Bella. Together they formed the Fledglings, a two-girl variety troupe bound by a pact that “Any man that’ll have one of us will have to have both of us.” It’s the kind of promise children make before adult reality sets in and, unsurprisingly, financial necessity soon forced Bluma on a different path.
Joey complains to Bluma that her life is much more interesting than his own, and the reader might be inclined to agree. Joey lives in the suburbs, Bluma outside the law, and the history as it is written here is especially evocative and rich in historical detail. It also reads like a traditional immigrant family novel. For a biography of Bluma, there is a lot of her parents here: their life in Russia – her mother’s previous marriage and her father’s escape from the czar’s men – and how both are misunderstood by their America-raised children. “The best story he knew was how he came to America, and all the things that happened along the way,” we learn about Bluma’s father, Abe. “It was one story he hadn’t told anyone.”
There lies the problem: If he told no one, how does his account make it into this book? Counterintuitively, the writerly quality to the Bluma narrative may also be the novel’s greatest drawback.
Choosing point of view is one of the most important decisions a writer makes in fiction. A tale has to fit its teller. The Fledglings tells Joey’s frame narrative in the third person, which makes sense for a character with an underdeveloped emotional intelligence who has lived an unobservant life until now.
But who tells Bluma’s story? This isn’t clear.
It’s hard to believe it could be Joey. True, by novel’s end the new writer has made a leap from laughing at metaphorical language to calling his lover “my miracle.” It’s not much, but it’s a start. He’s even started listening to public radio.
In keeping with the kunstlerroman tradition, Joey’s growth as an artist accompanies a moral and emotional transformation. Paradoxically, it’s through recording his mother’s words that Joey stops being such a momma’s boy. Eventually a writer must take responsibility for his work. In Joey’s case, that means facing the gaps and contradictions in Bluma’s tale and acknowledging her story as his own: not just because the family saga made him, but also because the telling is now his. Suddenly there is an “inner,” introspective Joey undergoing a young person’s rite of passage: he falls in love, hard, for the first time.
Homel doesn’t oversell Joey’s imaginative progress, though. Joey is a writer who doesn’t read: He’s never heard of Scheherazade or the Thousand and One Nights. “Dick and tic – they rhymed,” he muses. This is not the narrator of Bluma’s insightful, if conventional, historical narrative.
Nor is Bluma’s history written in Bluma’s voice. Here we are reminded of another fictional literary mother-son duo: July, the newly literate memoirist in Andrea Levy’s 2010 novel The Long Song and her editor-publisher son. The difference is that in Levy’s novel, July puts her life to paper in the same way she would dictate it, in Jamaican patois and with occasional asides to the capital-R Reader. Biography-telling is messy business, and July’s editor chastises her for not recounting hers properly.
The Fledglings promises similar fare in its early pages: “something truer than a book: a life story – hers, told by her.” What we get instead is this solitary snippet from Joey’s sessions with Bluma, covertly recorded: “The bitch ruined his life […] What a buncha deadbeats, all of them.”
One senses Homel wanted to have it all ways: have the scrappy, teenaged con-artist but with some added flourishes on the themes of memory and storytelling, occasionally dip into the minds of other characters, and not turn it to farce in the Joey Krueger style. The result is a less interesting compromise than the other albeit untidy options.
Jade Colbert reviews small press books for The Globe and Mail.