O My America!: A Novel

O My America!: A Novel

by Johanna Kaplan

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Jewish Book World
The author, winner of the National Jewish Book Award, writes of the American children of immigrant Jews. In this acclaimed fictional effort she brings intelligence and sitiric virtuosity to an often overworked fictional subject.

Product Details

Syracuse University Press
Publication date:
Library of Modern Jewish Literature
Edition description:
1st Syracuse University Press ed
Product dimensions:
5.51(w) x 8.22(h) x 0.85(d)

Read an Excerpt

O My America!

A Novel

By Johanna Kaplan


Copyright © 1980 Johanna Kaplan
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4804-1469-3


There was only one policeman, very young, his hands already on the steering wheel, by the time Merry got down to the police car. Holding out a pack of Chiclets, he said, "Want a piece of gum?" as if he were a casual acquaintance, someone's friend or downstairs neighbor agreeably giving her a lift because they were going in the same direction.

Much too quickly Merry said, "No, thanks," and because she was sure there had to be some protocol, some formality that would relieve them both of this strained unreality—slipping so rapidly through familiar city streets—she said, "I'm Merry Slavin. His daughter." Because on that point there had already been enough confusion.

The policeman, practically a parochial-school kid, red-haired, with the painfully fair, blue-white iridescent skin of redheads—the same color skin as Isobel's, though Isobel had never, even as a child, she said, had red hair—the policeman nodded, but did not really look at her. Glancing through the rear-view mirror, he said, "Sorry about the noise here, but it'll give us speed, and that's the purpose." The sudden sound of the siren and the smell of his peppermint gum fell through the car simultaneously; Merry turned and stared out the window, her eyes continually catching and keeping signs and stores as if it were a movie whose subtitles she could easily assimilate, but whose internal sense she would never really grasp.

The purpose: only an hour before, Merry, dressed to meet her father for dinner and waiting for his phone call, had fallen asleep on the living room sofa. She had changed early on purpose, hoping that by putting on a new dress she would prevent herself from falling asleep. This dress, which was Indian, and dark blue, with the customary intricate, multicolored Indian embroidery across the front, would annoy her father because it was a dress and therefore an implicit bourgeois demand; because it was Indian, thus taking jobs away from mere subsistence-level American workers and encouraging the exploitation of Indian ones even poorer; and because its embroidery was machine stitched—a once vital folk craft now brutally cut off from its real source, and so cheapening to a whole culture. But the dress itself, now wrinkled and sweaty, had not stopped her from falling asleep, an old habit she could not break. "Somnolence is a primary symptom of anxiety," was one of the first things her analyst had ever said to her, and Merry felt this to be true. She did not like it herself and yet could not stop it. Waking up from an undesired sleep in the late afternoon always left her with a detached gloomy sourness that did not go away for hours. Her father looked at it differently, however, having written of certain Impressionist paintings, particularly Cézanne's, that they gave you the same unique sensation as did waking up from a nap: out of a haze, you suddenly saw ordinary everyday objects as if only half formed. They were in the process of being born; it was a discovery, you saw them newly. Not that he especially cared about Impressionist paintings, or art of any kind, for that matter. What he valued above all was the sense of seeing something as you had never seen it before: through child's eyes, a discovery.

This was exactly what Merry knew he was doing as she waited for his phone call—he was walking slowly, hazily through Manhattan streets he had been through a hundred times before. Maybe this was one of the times he had gotten off at an unfamiliar subway stop by accident, or on purpose. It didn't matter; it would come to the same thing, especially now that he no longer lived in New York. A half smile was on his face as he stared and wandered: he was seeing something old and familiar in a new light, discovering something he had never previously noticed, or—who could tell?—possibly even finding something that was actually new. In a little while, over dinner, his eyes glazing with delight behind his glasses, he would be telling Merry about a new discount drugstore in the East Twenties or a new library in the West Sixties; they would both have been there for years. It was what Merry called to herself his Rip Van Winkle syndrome, and she had once told this to Isobel, who, in keeping with her nature, had merely shrugged. But Isobel could afford to shrug; she had been divorced from Ez Slavin for years.

Where was he now? Probably sitting over a milky lukewarm cup of coffee in an old Automat or an about-to-be-torn-down Bickford's, staring with ingenuous fascination at someone's left-over racing form, or happily fingering what he temporarily regarded as an ingenious new ketchup dispenser. With the clothes he wore and the way he looked, he would fit right in—and this was Merry's worst fear: that without trying, without even knowing or caring about it, her father would turn into a Bickford's bum. Especially since she had just finished writing a piece on Potter's Field, this thought put Merry to sleep, and when the phone rang, startling her into partial wakefulness, she saw that the dye of the dress had come off, running purplish blue onto her arms.

But the ringing phone was not her father; it was the police.

"Mrs. Ezra B. Slavin?"

"This is Miss Slavin," Merry said, so instantly annoyed that alarm did not reach her. "It is not his wife. I'm his daughter."

"There's been an accident, Miss," this police voice said, against a background of terrible noise and headachy buzzing. "Mr. Slavin's been taken to Bellevue. We're sending over a squad car now. It's on special orders."

Once, from a neighbor, Merry had heard a story about a woman who had received a similar phone call, but it was about her ten-year-old son and had come from the police department of the suburban Long Island town to which they had only just moved. It was for the sake of this son that they had moved, the woman was always apologizing: he had been mugged on his bike once too often. On a new bike, in his new town, the boy was run over by a car. When the phone call came at work, his mother had had to take the Long Island Rail Road from Penn Station all the way out to Westbury. "I knew he was dead," she had kept on repeating numbly, when people spoke to her afterward. "They wouldn't tell me anything, but all the time I was sitting there on the train I knew he was dead."

When the police car pulled up at the emergency room entrance, Bea Shestak, exactly the same, still streaky blond and florid faced, jumped out at Merry and embraced her. "Oh, my God," she sobbed. "We didn't even know he was in New York! He wasn't even listed as a speaker! Your father! Ez Slavin! He was just standing there, just standing on the edge of the crowd. If one of the Peace Committee marshals hadn't recognized him, he might have been lying there for hours. He didn't even have any identification, Merry. All he had was an old library card!"

"Well, he doesn't have a driver's license," Merry said. "And you know what he thinks of credit cards. Anyway, he's always been against identification, Bea. He thinks it's an intrusion of the state. I only hope he had Blue Cross or something. He certainly can't afford to stay in the hospital."

Staring into the distance, Bea Shestak said, "He died for his principles. He was never any different. He was always, always modest and he never changed his convictions."

"He's dead?" Merry said. "Just dead? They told me there was an accident."

"There was no accident," Herb Shestak said, stepping forward, nervously fingering his glasses. He was nearly totally bald now, but his beard had grayed only slightly. "Your father had a heart attack. A massive coronary. He was dead by the time he got here."

"DOA," Merry said, and looking around at the ambulances driving up and the crowd of white-uniformed doctors, nurses and attendants walking in and out—one girl with a stethoscope around her neck was brushing her hair as she pushed through a swinging door—she thought suddenly of how her grandfather had died. The police had found him too. "Was your father a man of means?" said the cop who had battered down the door to her father and his older brother, Uncle Bloke. Whispery groups of Chinese children stood in the newly made entranceway; their alien smells had bothered the old man, their tight, slanted eyes reminding him of the Mongolian tribesmen of his whole freezing Siberian childhood and youth, causing him to call out, "Tartar! Kalmuk!" when he saw them from his window or on the stairway. "Means!" exploded this uncle called Bloke, a giant, red-faced, crude-featured man, who had acquired his nickname in childhood from hanging around the Irish. "Would a man of means have lived in this shithouse?"

"I'd like to call Isobel," Merry said, having no idea whether or not she was making any sense. "What time is it there?"

"Isobel? What is she talking about, Herb? What time is it where? Merry, darling, you're the next of kin. You have to make the arrangements."

Herb Shestak said, "Isobel Rees—you know, that writer he used to be married to. The Blood Curtains. She lives in England."

"She lives in Italy," Merry said coldly. It was Isobel who was cold, her father always said, and she thought of how angry it made Isobel when people connected her solely with that one novel, which, made into a movie, brought her unexpected, temporary fame and permanent public association with a work whose tone and characters she could hardly even recognize. "I just want to talk to her, but not if it's the middle of the night there. Maybe she would come here, because she does come sometimes anyway. But I'm not the next of kin."

Bea Shestak began to cry again and hugged Merry so tightly that she could smell her perfume, or maybe it was only lotion or some kind of makeup. Why had Bea worn perfume to a demonstration? Ez did not approve of perfume, of any cosmetics at all; it meant she had succumbed to the seduction of advertising even if she only used blush-on or a little lipstick, which she needed because she looked like him and was sallow-skinned.

Tearfully, Bea said, "I know how awful it is for you, Merry. And shocking. But I wish you would cry instead of being so overwhelmed. Because there are things you'll have to do now.... When Herb's sister died, she was cremated too, so at least that's something we know about. And the newspapers ..."

"He doesn't believe in cremation, Bea. And besides, I am not the next of kin."

"My God, Herb! Look how upset she is! What are we going to do? She's not even thinking. Of course he believed in cremation, and, honey, Isobel has nothing to do with this. They were divorced. It's a legal thing. That's why those—those other girls—your sisters? Your half-sisters? Paula's girls—you know who I mean. Of course, you'll have to call them if you know where they are, but they're not legally, I mean, he wasn't actually ever married to their mo—"

"He had a son with Isobel," Herb said. "I forgot all about it."

"Nicky?" Merry said. "I think he's supposed to be in India, I'm not sure. They were hardly even speaking." She was aware suddenly of feeling extremely tired. "I mean Jeannie. That's who I should really call first."

"Jeannie?" Bea screamed.

From somewhere in back of her, Merry felt a light tap on the shoulder and a soft, nearly whispering woman's voice, oddly foreign, saying, "Mrs. Slavin?"

"No. Miss Slavin," Merry said wearily. "His daughter." And turning around, saw that she was facing a slight, very pretty Filipino girl, no older than herself. A stethoscope was shoved into her pocket; the name tag on her jacket said Concepcion Lopez, M.D. She looked hesitantly at Bea Shestak, and then, to Merry, said:

"There was no question of primary cause. You won't need a coroner...." She stopped abruptly and Merry stood there waiting, caught in the lilt of her voice, which was almost hypnotic. "The seizure was so massive, didn't he have a history? Suspected coronary events? Warning signs?"

"I don't know," Merry said. "I have no idea." Because when would her father have gone to a doctor? He had never believed in doctors, had not viewed medicine as a science. But then he did not believe in science.

The loudspeaker, which had been broadcasting constantly, a nearly unintelligible flat, metallic squawk, now burst out: "Dr. Lopez, Dr. Concepcion Lopez, Dr. Zwerling, Dr. Michael Zwerling, Dr. Lopez."

"Excuse me," Dr. Lopez whispered, and having already stepped away on her equally whispery, tiny shoes, she turned back and with sudden, surprising, shy urgency said, "I saw your father once. In Cambridge. We went to hear him speak, but it was so crowded they put us in an overflow room. When he found out later there were people who didn't get in, he took us with him to a special reception. We—we weren't even invited and he talked to us specially." She looked more and more embarrassed, and said finally, "I'm very sorry."

He slept with her, Merry thought instantly. Another one. He had asked her about the rebel fighters in the Philippines, listened to her lilting, hypnotic whisper, and decided entirely in his own mind that she would return in comradely bravery only to the farthest of the out-islands, a tiny, remarkable, healing heroine.

Bea Shestak clutched dramatically at Dr. Lopez's white jacket, her eyes filled again, and said, "Thank you, dear. He was always the same, the same with everyone. That's why this grief will be so shared. You have to think of that, Merry, it will help you. Now the shock and pain is yours, but the grief will be shared by so many."

Merry said, "I better call Jeannie. I suppose she should really know first. She's the next of kin, Bea. She's his wife."

"That little girl? In Massachusetts? The one he brought back from Kentucky? Merry, he wasn't married to her. You're not thinking straight."

"He was married to her," Merry said uncertainly, because of course there were all those years when he hadn't been. "They have a child, a little boy."

"Herb, did you know about this? Is it true? He got married up there in Massachusetts? And has a son? Is she rational? Maybe we should call up Dave Roizman and he'd give her a tranquilizer. Or talk to her. Something."

"He did have a baby," Herb said slowly. "And I suppose that's with Jeannie. But I didn't know he was married to her. I guess it's perfectly possible."

Perfectly possible. As ambulances careered in and out and sirens wailed, Herb Shestak waved his glasses in the air; it was undoubtedly the gesture he was accustomed to using in front of his classes when he was considering with just, reasoned gravity the varied but perhaps equal claim on truth of two opposing theoretical arguments. After all, on the one hand, but then, there was always, not to be dismissed, on the other: perfectly possible. Merry felt a wave of her father's contempt for Herb Shestak, for academics, for sociologists, for Herb Shestak who had always been this same one thing from a young man on—a teacher and a sociologist—and then recalled that her father had rarely made a living until he had gotten university jobs, and in a field usually called American Civilization or American Studies, not so different from sociology. And how much of a living had he made even then? Merry could not tell. He had found and embraced rural poverty when he met Jeannie on a trip to Hazard, Kentucky, and had lived up to what he considered its truth in a ramshackle farmhouse in northwestern Massachusetts, even these days when his commute had been to Amherst. But this was not entirely fair: he had always preferred being poor to having a real job, and did not care who had to share in his choice without having made it. None of the women he had ever been involved with, from Merry's mother on, had, according to him, truly understood the nature of his choice. Only Jeannie, Jeannie, who could not possibly have known the difference because she had lived all her life in real, dire, unelected poverty, had not minded, and he had elevated what she knew as the sole and natural condition of human life to be its highest form—and moved to the country. And to a remote and isolated place in the country at that. What about urban vitality? The streets and neighborhoods teeming with real life, the community of men?


Excerpted from O My America! by Johanna Kaplan. Copyright © 1980 Johanna Kaplan. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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