third is an extremely learned novel covering a host of important
topics that I can't possibly get to in an article of this length.
On seemingly every page, the author makes free use of folklore,
religion, myth, literature, songs, poems, puns, allusions, and
pop culture. He's also hilarious, often wickedly irreverent.
Readers must be alert, here. And I'm choosing to limit my remarks,
after a brief observation of the book's postmodern charactermainly
to the issue of Kreiger's racism and hatred of African Americansthen
condensedly touch on the disintegration of Krieger's relationships
with his girlfriends and family. There's a third large issueJewishness,
the state and condition of Jews in history and in the contemporary
world scene, as well as the fate of Israel as a state in the
modern Middle Eastwhich I'll mention only in passing,
but it's no less important for that.
As noted, this tale has a thoroughly postmodern identity, as
the occurrence of a well-known living person engaged in dialogue
with a fictional character illustrates; but there's more to
it than that. Estrin employs the device of "Paper Trails"documents
and letters which provide information about Krieger and commentary
on events transpiring within the world of the fiction. He also
uses chapter headings that tease by giving only a little information
regarding what the chapter's about. (For example, Krieger's
home life is discussed in "Krieger Domesticus"). Finally,
there are, on the face of it, endless referencessome direct,
some allusoryto classic works of literature from the 'canon',
if I may use that word (i.e., the novel begins with a
nod to Joyce: "Stately? No. Ahh, but plump? Decidely.").
So, who is Alan Krieger? He's an obese, chain smoking,
foul-mouthed, racist nurse in the ER of a large and busy New
York hospital. He lives with his mother and his pet snake, Shlong,
in a Bronx apartment, darts back and forth between between two
girlfriends, and despises his brother, Walter, and Walter's
family (who live in Vermont), mainly due to disagreements over
the Middle East situation and the state of Israeli politics.
It's hard to say exactly when it happens, but, at some point,
Krieger's mind tips sideways and he begins to fancy himself
a latter-day messiah for the Jews. He also becomes fascinated
with the Biblical concept of the Golem; hence, the novel's title.
word 'golem' is used in the Bible to refer to an embryonic
or incomplete substance: Psalm 139:16 uses the word 'gal'mi',
meaning 'my unshaped form' (in Hebrew, words are derived
by adding vowels to triconsonantal roots; here, g-l-m).
The Mishnah uses the term for an uncultivated person ("Ten
characteristics are in a learned person, and ten in an
uncultivated one" [Pirkei Avoth 5:7]). Similarly,
golems are often used, today, in metaphoreither
as brainless lunks or as entities serving man under controlled
conditions but hostile to him in others. Similarly, it
is a Yiddish slang insult for someone who is clumsy or
Some aspects of Estrin's work are extremely confrontational
and may make a lot of readers uncomfortable. Krieger slowly
develops into a Kahane-like
figurea warrior Jew who advocates violence as a means
of achieving socio-political goals and satisfactions. In an
review of the book, for Pop
Matters, Jason B. Jones points out that some readers, not
knowing much about Estrin, may tend to assume that Krieger's
just a thinly disguised version of the author, himself, when,
in fact, it seems that exactly the opposite is true. (Jones'
review is also highly perceptive in talking about binary concepts
that exist in the novelsomething I'm not at all sure I
would have picked up on).
applies a strategy of references to get all of his fundamental
points across to us, but, in particular, to point out just how
isolated and lonely his main character is. The vastness of Krieger's
learning is an indication; we wonder if this guy ever does anything
other than read books. His temperament and erudite lifestyle
function as a wedge between himself and less scholarly folk
(which includes almost everybody); but, even more, it exists
to show us how quickly an educated and knowledgeable person
can become a monster. Simply as a fun exercise, readers might
want to glance at the following list of unexplained allusions
Krieger makes, in the course of the story, and determine how
much they know about each itemwithout performing a Google
Bishop of Hippo
to Be Desired
such as these are slipped into dialogue and interior monologue,
reading becomes both challenging and enjoyable. It's an ordinary
device brought into play extraodinarily well.
The question of what it means to be a Jew in modernity has,
of course, been investigated, at length, in American fiction
by three great twentieth century writersBellow,
twentieth century Jewish theology and philosophy had plenty
of heavyweights, such as Buber
Estrin, I think, has clearly learned from all three of the novelistsnot
only thematically, but stylistically. The author understands
(and acknowledges) some literary heritage, and I feel that these
small accedences are more subtle, more masked, than the numerous
outright references he makes to other writers and musicians.
opening chapter of Golem Song nods to these predecessors
in three slyly differing ways. In the staff room of the hospital,
Krieger finds a browniehalf eaten, left for deadand
he debates the best way to eat the remains of it without being
seen. This is strongly evocative of one of the opening scenes
of Bellow's Herzog, wherein Moses Herzog leaves remains
of his toast for the mice in his kitchen. In quick order, Krieger
accidentally knocks a coffee cup off the table and it flies
through the air, landing perfectly, bottom down, on the carpet,
the coffee quivering inside, not a drop spilled. This, again,
recalls the otherworldly magic that the characters in Malamud
stories (i.e., The
Magic Barrel, or "The First Seven Years") experience;
and, lastly, the outrageous humor of which Estrin makes use,
in every chapter, channels Rothespecially in earlier novels
such as Portnoy's
Great American Novel.
(The latter begins with a small nod to Moby
Dick in the exact manner that Golem Song nods
In Krieger's twisted mind, the principal enemies of the Jews
are African-Americansspecifically, the Nation
of Islam. There's all manner of lunacy in New York on the
subject of Jews vs. Blacks and, in the '90s (the novel's set
in 1999), we had the Crown
Heights Riots, Professor Leonard
Jeffries, and the aforementioned Kahane and his followers.
From the get-go, Estrin sets up the later scenes of confrontation
and dementia. Much of significance ensues between Krieger and
African-Americans. In the first chapter, Krieger encounters,
in the hospital chapel, a Mr. Brown, who thinks he's Jesus.
In the second chapter, he has nasty racialist and sexual thoughts
about a black woman in the subway; then, the door to the subway
car opens and "in swaggered two youths
of color, equipped with acoustic accoutrements",
who proceed to smokeeven though there are signs everywhere
announcing that this isn't allowed. Later, Krieger produces
a rap lyric for one of his girlfriends, Ursula (a psychiatrist
you spell girl, girl with a G?
you know I spell girl, girl, with a B!
I know what the *@!$ you fo
no mischance you called a ho
a brother like me, he need only one thing
that thing a target for mah .44 ding-a-ling!
my vernacular simply spectacular?
a killa, a Godzilla, that's the ganze megillah
Krieger really starts to fall apart when it's revealed that
Ursula has a black lover who has converted to Judaism.
Shortly after that, Krieger's attacked in the parking lot of
St. Vincent's and, as might be expected, assumes it was at the
hands of a black assailant, although he has no proof of this.
He's passed over for a promotion which goes, instead, to a black
female colleague. When a black patient named Eddie, who's been
stabbed and has assaulted a policeman, is brought into the ER,
Kreiger, in a "joking" manner, threatens to emasculate
the man. Perhaps what pushes his bigotry totally over the edge
are some of the speeches he hears at a Nation of Islam rally,
held at the Statue of Liberty:
none other than the black man. The black man is the first
and the last, the maker and the owner of the universe. Allah
is proving to us that the white race is notand never
will bethe Chosen People of God. They are the
Chosen People of their father Yacub, the devil.
victimization is part of a great hoax that explains how
Jews have come to influence Western civilization out of
all proportion to their small numbers. Jews are not victims:
they are victimizers. They were the main people responsible
for the genocide of the Native Americans. They were one
of the main slaveholders of our people beforeand afterthe
Estrin presents us with all of the usual justifications an imbalanced
person will wield in order to palliate his/her racism, culminating
in a Rambo-like reaction to the anti-Semitism of the Nation
A couple of Krieger's rants:
is as Jewish as potato latkes, Calvin. This world ain't
on the Roof". That was bad enough. But after
the Shoah show, non-violence doesn't cut it anymore. For
Never-Again-ists, we need force and power, and not just
have in mind blacks chanting, "More lampshades!"
at a cannibal demo in Crown Heights. I have in mind my
little Jewish nephew singing gangsta rap. Makes marrying
a non-Jew seem like yeshiva.
However, the imagined tormentors of the Jewish people are not
the only ones with whom Krieger has serious issues. He ruins
a seder at the home of his girlfriend, Debbie Goldenbaum, shocking
the guests with his contemptuous ridicule of their traditions
and beliefs. He fights with his brother over their conflicting
views of Israel (Walter is a pacifist who's appalled by the
behavior of the Israeli militaryas he puts it, the policy
of "a thousand eyes for an eye"and
who takes Krieger's "JDL swagger
and machismo" deeply to task). The other girlfriendthe
German Ursulaelects to dump Krieger for her long-lost
African-American Jewish friend, Calvin, whom she happens to
bump into at a restaurant where she and Krieger are having dinner
(another miracle coincidence!). Even his mother can't stand
him anymore and goes to live with her other son and his family
in Vermont. (We learn of this from one of the Paper Trails with
the subtitle of "First Epistle of Ma to the Floridians".)
Readers wishing to explore further should consult the Jones
review mentioned earlier, as well as one by Gordon
Hauptfleisch. There's also a long
interview with the author that provides quite a bit of exposition
into Estrin's planning for the book.
Golem Song is fascinating and disturbing, and it may
be the only hysterically funny novel about the possibility of
a race war that you'll ever read.
MONTH: Asali Solomon's Get