Sara Ivry is a senior editor at www.nextbook.org, where she hosts a weekly podcast on books, culture and ideas.
I’d never read anything by the British writer Howard Jacobson until this year, when I picked up Kalooki Nights to prepare for an interview. Hilarious, shocking, provocative, it relishes in the breadth of Jewish postwar experience (Orthodoxy, assimilation, paranoia, Nazi fetishism, who’s trying to pass) through the eyes of one Maxie Glickman, an occasionally louche cartoonist from Manchester who marries only women with umlauts in their names (Chlöe, Zöe, et al.) and whose childhood friend has gassed his parents, but that hardly makes the man a villain! Pardon that far too simple description; what makes this novel a knock-out is its maturity and richness of story infused with both compassion and yuks about, for instance, misreading the silent “k” in knish or a teenager’s ruse to feed his date biryanis so she gets hot under the collar and needs someone to blow on her.
At the urging of a friend I rented Infamous in July and then decided, finally, to read In Cold Blood when I went a week later to semi-rural Connecticut to visit my folks. At dinner I’d tell them about the book’s latest developments, about the Clutters’ horrible deaths in Kansas, about Perry Smith’s tragic childhood that almost seemed to excuse his crime. Then, one day that week, I picked up the newspaper and read about three brutal murders, a mother and her daughters, in a town not too far away by two men who’d met in a halfway house. What seemed in In Cold Blood like an account of random violence in an altogether different time and place was made current, and my mother suggested I stop reading Capote’s book, since we had been reminded with a jolt how close by brutality lurks. Despite how grim the news was, I couldn’t put the book down. Even though I knew how it ended, I wanted to read Capote’s telling of how it ended, and made sure every night that all doors and windows were locked tight.