The Barnes & Noble Review
Ben Schrank, who made his debut in 1999 with Miracle Man, has a penchant for exploring the peaks and valleys of the human psyche. This, his sophomore novel, uses the mystical legend of the Golem -- a clay statue given life to defend persecuted Jews in 16th-century Prague -- as the solder for an interpersonal, dysfunctional matrix forged of lust, brutality, longing, and betrayal.
For the narrator, divorced doctoral student Mike Zabusky, the Golem is both friend and fiend, and the thrust of his doctoral thesis, which he’s writing under the auspices of his domineering, controlling adviser, Matthew Weingarden. What Mike doesn’t realize is that neither he nor his love interest, Katherine Staresina, can escape Weingarden’s prickly clutches even in the midst of their most torrid sexual throes. However, once the hapless student’s father commits suicide, and the course of his affair with Katherine -- who is wild, frustrating, and scarred by her sister’s murder some years ago -- spins to the outer limits of chaos, Mike must ascertain who, or what, is in control of his life.
Through intense character interplay and bright, uncluttered prose, Schrank captures all the competitiveness, claustrophobia, and codependence that sometimes prevail between student and mentor, lover and lover. Unmitigated male urges that are easily ridiculed -- everything from ardent impromptu copulation to indiscriminate destruction -- are endowed by the author with a kind of ignoble dignity and a regal wretchedness. While downright callous and sadistic creatures are seemingly given free rein here, sympathetic humanity, however controlled and confused, achieves a countervailing power: the will to succeed. Ultimately, Consent is a story of hope. (Will Romano)
A spicy, turbulent Manhattan love story, Schrank's second novel (after Miracle Man) incorporates sexual passion, familial strife, crucial secrets and several kinds of obsession. At a party, small talk turns to heavy petting for abruptly intimate strangers Mike Zabusky, a divorced, 31-year-old graduate student, and a sexy, secretive domestic violence lawyer, Katherine Staresina, but their romantic future is dubious from the start. A fluctuating cat-and-mouse game of infatuation ensues: Katherine retreats, Mike obsessively stalks her, and the steamy sex resumes. But Mike's world is suddenly shaken by the news that his stock market-savvy father has committed suicide. Their relationship has deteriorated over the years, especially after the father's messy divorce and some costly financial slips. Mike's attention is diverted from the ever-elusive Katherine (whose own sister was murdered many years ago) to his family's house of secrets in Roosevelt, Long Island, and in his search for answers he uncovers a heap of violently broken furniture, unpaid debts and the news that Dad's distraught girlfriend, Sarah Jane, had left him just weeks before his death. Running alongside the busy narrative is a curious subplot involving Mike's doctoral thesis on the golem, a numinous monster in Jewish folklore, and some forced interactions with his disturbingly influential thesis adviser, Matthew Weingarden. Though the narrative is sometimes an odd hybrid of fiction and folklore, any hint of incongruity is tempered by skillful plotting and equal amounts of tension, romance and fascinating, well-researched Jewish mysticism. Schrank complements his intriguing domestic drama with characters (both main and supportive) as intelligent, realistic and provocative as the story they propel, as he continues to demonstrate his powerhouse potential. (Mar. 19) Forecast: Its sleek, cinematic plot and cool, 30-something characters could fast-track this book to Hollywood. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Nothing is going right in Mike Zabrusky's life. He's terminally stalled in his dissertation about the Golem, a mythological creature in Jewish folklore, much to the displeasure of his adviser, Matthew Winegarden, the foremost scholar of medieval Jewish studies at the university. In addition, his initially ecstatic relationship with Katherine, a domestic violence attorney whom he met at one of Matthew's parties, has turned sour. Katherine plays approach/avoidance games almost immediately, first inviting him into her life and then rejecting him, which fills him with dismay. Finally, soon after Mike meets Katherine, his father kills himself, and Mike realizes that what is most important to him is understanding what compelled his father's suicide: a broken heart, bankruptcy, or perhaps something of which Mike is unaware? The major flaw in this second novel (after Miracle Man) is that Schrank never succeeds in bringing these various plot strands together, so that Mike the student, Mike the lover, and Mike the son all seem like different people. The character of Katherine never rises above stereotype (like Denise in Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections, she is the daughter in a dysfunctional family who has trouble committing to men), so it's impossible to discern why Mike is attracted to her. For comprehensive public library fiction collections only. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 11/1/02.] Nancy Pearl, Washington Ctr. for the Book, Seattle Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
A melancholy account of a young man's attempt to discover the meaning of his father's death-and the path of his own future. Schrank (Miracle Man, 1999) begins his tale on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, the erstwhile Jewish ghetto that has gone through several incarnations since most of the kosher delis closed down. It is now the home turf of one Michael Zabusky, a graduate student at City University working on a dissertation about the golem (the mythical man-like monster created by Rabbi Loeb in 16th-century Prague to be the "avenger of the Jews"). Mike has the good fortune early on to meet the beautiful Katherine Staresina (a domestic-violence lawyer who obligingly introduces herself at a party and takes Mike into the bathroom for some quick but heated sex), who is very appealing in a shiksa sort of way. This is a family weakness, apparently, for Mike's father Jeff also hooked up with a gentile after his divorce-and neither he nor Mike's mother can understand why he is wasting his time with this Jewish Studies shtick. Mike is not really sure himself, but soon his career confusion is eclipsed by domestic shock when his father dies, apparently by his own hand. Jeff Zabusky was a stockbroker who had overextended himself and got caught when the markets took a dive. He also was in love with Sarah Caldwell, who'd begun to keep her distance from him. Which was the cause of his final despair? While trying to figure this out, Mike also fights to keep his father's house in upstate New York from the bank. And Katherine has abruptly said that she can no longer see him. With a sharp sense of his own solitude pressing on him, Mike could be forgiven for his fantasies of creating a golem of his own.But he's no Rabbi Loeb. Intelligently done: a nice kaleidoscope of emotion, history, and regret.
Read an Excerpt
1Copyright 2002 by Ben Schrank
In the room I keep at the Gouverneur Hotel, at the bottom of the Lower East Side, in Straus Square, I’ve got dozens of handkerchiefs. The cotton ones have raised needlework, often in more than one color. Some have leaves in the corners, diamonds, or Hebrew words. One has elaborate curls, which I’m quite sure are sewn with golden thread. The silk ones are more elaborate, with patterns of orange flame, waves, quarter moons, or women’s faces. I dry my tears with these handkerchiefs. I masturbate into them. I wipe the sweat from my forehead. And when my eyes grow red from heat or smoke, I press them lightly with a handkerchief to cool them.
I launder each handkerchief by hand. I won’t let them fall further apart. I got them from my father years ago, when I was home for a holiday break from the University of Chicago and he happened to be moving out of the apartment he shared with my mother on the corner of Rutherford Place and Seventeenth Street, where I grew up. He didn’t want these handkerchiefs because her parents gave them to him, a half dozen each year on his birthday, and some had grown frayed.
I need to use one now, because the warmth in here is making my eyes water, so it’s become difficult for me to smile at strangers. I move quickly across this crowded living room and I feel lucky when I find enough space on a windowsill to first steady my hand and then set down my glass. I take a folded handkerchief from my back pocket and press it to my eyes. Soon I’ll go and find my friend Bear, drink another scotch, and then I’ll be bold and look about me, with the hope that there’s someone else I might speakwith here at Professor Weingarden’s Welcome the Spring party.
This handkerchief is made of blue-and-gray checked silk. My father’s initials, JGZ, are stitched in one corner. His name is Jefferson Gerard Zabusky. I’m Mike.
“Today must have been terrifying for you.”
It’s a woman speaking. My eyes are covered, and I can’t imagine that she’s addressing me. She’s probably asking someone about the market, which slipped again. March is just ending and it looks like we’re going to have a messy April. We’ve had a strong allergy season, studded with bouts of rain. The markets have done nothing but falter, and even people like me, with few or no investments, have begun to watch. But tonight, after a full day of storm clouds and thunder, amid consistent reports of our financial doom, at least the sky is clear.
“Come on, no two-day blip is going to hurt me,” a man says. “We went through this in February. This happens all the time.” He laughs impatiently, and the noise he makes is like a scoff. These people have taken over the rest of the window, to my right. I put my handkerchief away, blink, and look at the woman’s back. The man bobs his head, as if he’s trying to catch her eye. “So no, it wasn’t terrifying,” says the man, “and it won’t kill me.”
“I didn’t say it would kill you,” she says.
“The worst is over,” he says. “We’ve maintained a substantial cash reserve. Too bad you couldn’t stick around to see me do well again.”
At an inch or so over six feet, he’s my height, but he’s at least ten years older than I am and he’s wearing good clothes—a black blazer and a freshly pressed white shirt. Though I’ve got a strong memory for languages and names and ideas, I can’t be counted on to remember to dress well for parties. I’m wearing navy blue pants and my favorite shirt, which is dark as a red rose forgotten for days in a vase.
She says, “Really, I only asked if you’d had a scary day. But you’re tough. I’m sure you’ll do fine.”
Because I’m close to her, I can hear her sigh. I like the way she sounds. She’s got rust in the lower registers of her voice and she does not speak quickly. But the man is cracking. He rolls his shoulders and splays out his fingers, as if he wants to grab hold of something, of her, but he must know that he can’t touch her when they’re talking this way. Her back is upright and calm.
“Katherine,” he says, and shakes his head, “when I don’t see you for a while—I forget what an awful bitch you are.” She does not speak immediately. Her shoulders do not move.
Then she says, “I’m not. But clearly, I’m also not what you were looking for. We can agree on that now.”
“No, you sure as hell weren’t,” he says. And then I watch with this woman while he walks away, toward the dining room. She turns then, to look out the window. She bends forward with her whole body and stares down at the cars on the West Side Highway.
“Wasn’t that a bit much?” Katherine asks. She doesn’t look up and she isn’t loud, so she must be able to feel that I’m standing close by her.
“First he wasn’t smooth, and then he wasn’t nice,” I say. I’d like to tell her that he repulsed me, but they may have been affectionate with each other at one time, and so she might not want to hear him called repulsive by someone else, regardless of whether she knows it.
“True. He’s only someone I used to date. He runs a company and I guess these last few days have been hard going. I bet his board of directors are feeling just like me, like they chose the wrong man. He isn’t smart. That’s partly why he’s mean. I’m sorry that I saw him tonight.”
“Complicated,” I say. “It was good of you to be so gentle with him.”
“Gentle?” she says. “I’m wrong to rationalize his behavior. I don’t feel the least bit benevolent toward him.”
There are lines at the edges of my eyes and these lines crinkle down when I smile. I smile now. I don’t say a word.
She says, “In fact, he’s married. But he keeps bothering me. I should tell him to leave me alone.”
“Why didn’t you call for help?” I say. “I could have yanked him away from you. I would have thrown him out of this window.”
She glances around the room. She acts as if she is concerned that someone has overheard me.
“That doesn’t appeal to me. If I want to throw him out a window, I’ll do it myself. Why don’t we go find a drink?”
We leave the dining room and approach the nervous undergraduate who Weingarden has set up behind a high table in a corner of the foyer. Katherine points, and he gives her a glass of red wine. He sets me up with another scotch. Oddly, he ignores my request for fresh ice. I don’t recognize him, so I know I haven’t taught him and he can’t be angry with me. This makes me wonder if I’m slurring words, or if I haven’t bothered to speak at all, and in turn, if either of these things is true, if I’m not entirely sober.
There’s a table next to us, and I turn to it. It’s thick with cocktail food: cheeses on a wood board, some fresh berries, a chopped-up pile of bread, green dip, red dip, crackers. I don’t know if it’s nervousness or the dip colors, but I lose my appetite immediately, which is typical. And I haven’t eaten since breakfast—one lonely egg on a biscuit and black coffee in a paper cup, from a diner on Montgomery Street. Ninety-nine cents. This is why I often find myself going to bed hungry. I eat too little at the beginning of the day and then I’m left with an unquenchable nighttime hunger. I lack foresight. That’s my problem. But it’s just the sort of dilemma that’s difficult to fix.
I take a piece of cheese that’s studded with peppercorns and I eat it quickly. Incredibly, Katherine is still here. She’s staying with me. Now I’ve got a sticky mouth and a stunned feeling that clenches at my ribs, because she continues to smile through my second and third glance. The room isn’t bright, but the rims of things have taken on a glow, perhaps because of the scotch.
“In fact,” she says, “we’ve met before.”
Because she’s said this, I feel as if I’ve been given clearance to look at her again, more carefully, and I do. She’s in a simple dark dress, with an ache of red-brown hair grazing her shoulders, and difficult eyes. So she is no longer only a still figure in a window. Her eyes are opaque. I cannot discern a dominating color.
“Have we?” I ask. I don’t recall a prior meeting. I look again at her eyes.
There is a problem with such eyes: they always seem willing to be intrigued. You try to entertain them, with the hope that maybe, for some moment in your life with her, you’ll be able to get beyond a fleeting interest, and somehow find out—and it’s doubtful that you’ll get the opportunity—more about the wonderful and truthful things that happen inside of her. They are eyes filled with imperviousness, so that though they can show amazement and pleasure, they are equally sure of their ability to show no interest at all, and by doing so they can make you miserable. They are impossible because of this combination of opacity and excitement. Though I feel all of this, I choose to ignore it. I’m talking to a woman I’ve just met at a party. At thirty-one, with one marriage behind me, I am no longer truly stupid and young, but I can still behave as if I am. My eyes are dark green. They are shaped like almonds.
“You don’t remember,” she says.
“I do,” I say. “It’s just—I can’t recall the circumstance.” This isn’t exactly true. I don’t remember her at all, but complete honesty can be hollow and confining—and really, just because I don’t remember her now doesn’t mean that I won’t remember her later.
“I believe you used to know my friend Miriam,” she says.
She has to come up closer to see me, because someone has turned off more lights. Behind her, Weingarden has taken over the middle of his living room. He begins to dance with Elsie, an attractive woman who was the other TA for the medieval heretics class he ran in the fall. A few more of the uninhibited join in. Weingarden winks at me and I smile back at him. I’ve been one of his teaching assistants and he’s been my adviser for years now. He motions for me to bring my new friend and join him, but I shake my head, and he gives me a mock frown. He’s always after me—trying to get me to enjoy myself as much as he does. Again, I look around for my friend Bear. Perhaps he has met someone he likes. Bear may be acting uncharacteristically, by taking advantage of the fact that his wife, Jen, is out of town.
“That’s right—of course,” I say. “That’s when I met you.”