Authors: Alan Isler
ALAN ISLER’S FIRST NOVEL
The Prince of West End Avenue
, was one of the critical successes of 1995, a marvellous blend of comedy and tragedy. In Isler’s new novel the accent is on comedy.
It is 1974. Nicholas Kraven, lecturer in English Literature at Mosholu College in the Bronx, is adrift upon a sea of troubles: his affair with his neighbour’s wife threatens to progress from Thursday nights to permanence; his students are a mixture of campus revolutionaries, predatory sexual exhibitionists and an old man intent on proving Merlin was a Jew; an elderly academic specialist in Love, possessor of a devastatingly effective aphrodisiac and a libido that belies her years, has alarming designs on his person; the Kraven demons, a familial curse, are in hot pursuit; and a spectre from his past, the one man who can smash this already chaotic life into ruins, is expected imminently.
Kraven flies to London, where he finds brief consolation in the arms of Candy Peaches, a stripper from Sausalito working on her MA thesis (‘Displaced Eroticism in the Fiction of Early Nineteenth-Century Women Writers’) at the British Museum, and thence to Harrogate, the town to which he was evacuated as a child, there to confront the ghost of his father and to slay the Kraven demons.
A superb comic novel, fizzing with brilliant wordplay,
confirms that, in Alan Isler, a major new writer has arrived.
Also by Alan Isler
THE PRINCE OF WEST END AVENUE
For my sisters
Alas! Fond Fancy’s but a cheat:
Food for thought is airy meat.
The artist of the mind grows thinner
For want of a substantial dinner.
THE MEN STOOD AROUND THE OPEN GRAVE looking down at the coffin. Nicko, almost seven, understood that his father, Felix Kraven, lay within. Grandfather Kraven, Nicko’s ‘Opa’, stood a little behind the boy, supported by Onkel Koko and Onkel Gusti. The old man was having difficulty breathing. Tears ran down his cheeks into his beard, and sobs shook his body. Onkel Ferri, himself shuddering and whimpering, stood beside Nicko, whose duty it was to say
. On the other side of the pit were his cousin Marko, Rabbi Himmelglick, and Grandpa Blum. The rabbi held one hand on Marko’s shoulder. Nicko rather resented that, even though he already hated Himmelglick. The rabbi was a thin, humped old man, with a soft fleshy nose badly peppered with blackheads. When he talked, scum gathered in the corners of his mouth. Certainly Nicko would not have wanted the hand on
shoulder. Behind Grandpa Blum stood a few of his father’s old friends, those who had been able to make the trip north on short notice. All of
surely knew how important Nicko was today, the mourner-in-chief, the sayer of
, much more important than soppy old rotten old Marko.
The sound of a ball hitting a cricket bat (pok!) and muffled polite applause reached the ears of the mourning party, uncannily, as if from an immense distance. There must be a school and playing fields somewhere beyond the cemetery. It was warm in the sunshine, but when a cloud raced across the heavens, darkening the land, the underlying chill in the air made itself felt. The clouds were beginning to bank to the
. Visible in the moist black sides of the pit were white, gleaming dots, roots sliced by the spade. Worms wriggled in the loose black earth at the head of the grave. Nicko tried to concentrate on them. Marko had once shown him what happens to a worm when salt was poured on it. Ugh!
Willie, the gardener, was to do Home Guard exercises on the Stray this afternoon. Only last week he had promised to take Nicko along to watch. But at this rate they would never be back in time, and besides, probably they wouldn’t let him go. Daddy had spoiled all that. According to Marko, Nicko would have to sit and shiver for seven days. Onkel Ferri was already doing it. Perhaps it was time for Nicko to start. Nobody knew what Nicko had done, except for Mummy, and she’d never tell. Nicko stared hard at the worms.
It had seemed a long drive from Harrogate to the Jewish Cemetery on the outskirts of Leeds. Nicko had been assigned the limousine reserved for the ladies, a wretched, sissy thing. He and his cousin Tillie were allowed to sit in the fold-out seats at least, and Nicko could see where he had been rather than where he was going, an odd sensation in a car. Lucky Aunt Cicely had managed to seat herself next to the driver. The women were all dressed in black, and they had red eyes that wept buckets. Well, Aunt Cicely had stayed pretty calm. She turned back to tick Mummy off from time to time. ‘Hush, hush, Victoria. Hysterics won’t help.’ Every now and then she would glance at the driver. It was easy to see she wanted him to know that
Jews could control their emotions, just like ordinary people. And Tillie had started off all right, too. She had tried to play round-and-round-the-garden with Nicko, just to cheer him up a bit. Nicko hadn’t minded, even though it
a baby game and he preferred
to think of the garden.
Mummy tell? Perhaps the police would make her. Nicko glanced through the rear window at the first of the limousines that trailed them. Marko was sitting with the driver.
Only if Nicko craned round to look at the road before them could he see the hearse. Poor Mummy had no choice. That was part of the trouble. It was right there on the road before her, right there between Aunt Cicely’s head and the driver’s. The coffin was as visible as it could be. Mummy kept her head down most of the time though, her eyes closed, steadily sobbing, occasionally howling. She kept her arms crossed, and she rocked back and forth. How unhappy she was!
In the cemetery’s prayer hall Rabbi Himmelglick greeted the mourners. The prayer hall was a plain red-brick building; it might have been a warehouse or a large garage. The air inside was cold and damp. It seemed unaffected by the stove in the far corner, whose lid glowed redly in the gloom. There was a smell of wood rot and wet cement. Some folding chairs had been arranged with a centre aisle, as if in preparation for a lecture. The place of the lectern was occupied by the coffin, which rested on its bier. Two bulbs of low wattage hung naked on long wires from the ceiling. The windows had been painted black as an air-raid precaution.
‘Which one is to say
’ Himmelglick asked in Yiddish. Onkel Ferri brought Nicko forward. The rabbi removed a pair of scissors from a spectacle case, took Nicko’s black velvet High Holy Days waistcoat between bloodless thumb and forefinger, and cut a small nick in the V of the garment just above the heart. Nicko was shocked: his velvet waistcoat! Himmelglick bared his teeth, not to smile but to speak, the scum collecting. ‘Well, well,’ he said impatiently, ‘tear it, tear it.’ His teeth were long and yellow, crooked and widely spaced. The stench of their decay was on his breath. Nicko looked up unbelievingly at Onkel Ferri, who nodded. The boy turned his back on the hateful Himmelglick and tried to tear his waistcoat, but it would not tear. The rabbi leaned over him, forcing his head back into the dingy beard, inches from the detestable mouth. He grasped the cut edges
his adult fingers and tore. The women screamed as the cloth ripped. The rabbi released Nicko, who ran from him, nauseated, terrified, sought out his mother and threw himself into her arms. Himmelglick calmly went about the room nicking the clothing of the Kraven men. Marko, lucky Marko, merely a nephew, was excused.
At the gravesite, from which he had banned the women, Rabbi Himmelglick bared his teeth. ‘May he come to his resting place in peace,’ he said in Hebrew.
There was a sudden barking and howling and growling and whimpering, and the low-pitched whine of a dog in misery. And then two dogs, common curs, rolled out from behind a large family gravestone, rolled and attempted to stand, stood at last, stuck rump to rump, pulling in opposite directions, squealing, barking, howling dementedly. The larger of the dogs was making headway, dragging the other after, inch by inch. The mutt’s hind legs scarcely touched the ground, but the poor creature tried repeatedly to find purchase. The dogs zigzagged, paused, advanced, retreated, staggered, approached, sending up all the while their frenzied racket. And finally, as the mourners stood paralysed, the dogs tumbled with a terrifying shriek into the open grave itself. There they scratched around on top of the coffin, whimpering, squealing, trying to leap out in opposite directions into freedom.
At a discreet distance, beyond the earth piled high at the head of the grave, stood the gravediggers, an old toothless gaffer and his assistants, two brawny adolescents, nudging one another and winking. The gaffer cackled openly, lifting his spade to point out the dogs’ progress.
What to do? How to get them out? Driven close to madness, they were not to be approached. Rabbi Himmelglick turned to the old gravedigger.
would be sure to know. Was he not a gentile? The rabbi pointed to the grave and shrugged meaningfully.
Lifting his head the better to throw his voice across the earth mound, the gravedigger released a short burst of thick Yorkshire dialect in which the only word intelligible as a word (but in any case meaningless to Himmelglick) was ‘watter’. He made no attempt to disguise his merriment. Now he pointed with his spade to the grave, from which the pitiful howling and mad growling, the scratching and thumping, were still to be heard. He tried again, this time speaking slowly, but still producing incomprehensible sounds: ‘Thee maun poot watter on they.’
Himmelglick turned back to the mourners and lifted his hands and shoulders just enough to indicate puzzlement. ‘What’s he saying, the imbecile?’ he asked, baring his teeth. ‘A disgrace,’ he added.
Nicko alone of the entire mourning party could claim birth in the land of the gravediggers. He alone might be supposed to understand the old man’s words. But of course one could not ask a child, a
. Onkel Ferri, close now to hysteria, began to laugh, but then, shocked by his own laughter, he misswallowed, started to cough, and came close to choking. Everyone pretended to notice nothing amiss with him. Opa was saying in a quavering voice, ‘Enough, enough. I can’t any more. Tell me, God, what have I done? I can’t any more.’ He wept without cease.