A Stranger on the Planetby Adam Schwartz
In the summer of 1969, twelve-year-old Seth lives with his unstable mother, Ruth, and his brother and sister in a two-bedroom apartment in New Jersey. His father lives with his new wife in a ten-room house and has no interest in Seth and his siblings. Seth is dying to escape from his mother’s craziness and suffocating love, her marriage to a man she’s… See more details below
In the summer of 1969, twelve-year-old Seth lives with his unstable mother, Ruth, and his brother and sister in a two-bedroom apartment in New Jersey. His father lives with his new wife in a ten-room house and has no interest in Seth and his siblings. Seth is dying to escape from his mother’s craziness and suffocating love, her marriage to a man she’s known for two weeks, and his father’s cold disregard.
Over the next four decades, Seth becomes the keeper of his family’s memories and secrets. At the same time, he emotionally isolates himself from all those who love him, especially his mother. But Ruth is also Seth’s muse, and this enables him to ultimately find redemption, for both himself and his family.
“Masterful and richly textured.”—Boston Globe
“A Stranger on the Planet is the first great Jewish novel of 2011 and a book for outsiders of all stripes, one that serves as a reminder of how many chapters we all get.”—Jewcy.com
"Funny, honest and obsessive, A Stranger on the Planet is finally as beautiful as it is driven. Charming, too: Adam Schwartz is one part Philip Roth, but with a neurosis all his own."—Gish Jen, author of World and Town
"With exhilarating wit, skill and passion Adam Schwartz covers more than thirty years in Seth's life as he fights with, negotiates, distances himself from and embraces his vivid, difficult relatives. A Stranger on the Planet brings us a hero who is almost heroically anti-heroic, and who can be counted on to almost always act, endearingly, in his own worst interests. I would happily have followed him anywhere."—Margot Livesey, author of The House on Fortune Street
“This is a stunningly good book. Adam Schwartz bestows the story of the Shapiro family to us with irresistible grace, humor, and conviction. A Stranger on the Planet is utterly charming, and deliciously satisfying.”—Don Lee, author of Wrack and Ruin and Country of Origin
"With a quirky frankness, A Stranger on the Planet reveals how the hardships that fate swings our way can make us attuned to life's larger possibilities."—Sana Krasikov, winner of the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature for One More Year
A Jewish boy from a fractured family learns the meaning of forgiveness and understanding in a seriocomic epic that takes him from New Jersey to Chicago to Cambridge, Mass.
Schwartz's first novel is solidly entrenched in the tradition of Jewish coming-of-age fiction. The book opens in 1969, when 12-year-old Seth Shapiro's mentally shaky mother Ruth, still furious that her wealthy medical-researcher husband left her for a French postdoctoral student, marries a loser she just met at a Catskills resort. The marriage, a quick flop, is one of numerous domestic disasters with which the perpetually alienated Seth and his intimately close twin sister Sarah must contend. They also share the unsettling experience of hearing a fat, married lawyer have sex with their mother during a visit to his Long Island summer home. When they visit their father at his Cape Cod home with their younger brother Seamus, he treats them only slightly less coldly than his uptight French wife, who brings out upstart Seth's knack for getting in trouble—or skirting it. As a student, he achieves early success with a story largely lifted from the work of Saul Bellow, and ends up for the wrong reasons at the University of Chicago Divinity School. As well-written and thoughtful as it is, the book never overcomes a certain secondhand quality itself. There's nothing especially fresh about Seth or his story, or Schwartz's treatment of fiction as a curative for real life. The comic touches are never more than amusing, and its serious themes never more than lightly affecting, or sentimental. Seth's sexual encounters—with an all-knowing teen who schools him in oral sex under the stars, a smart Jewish girl who turns out to be lesbian, an auburn-haired gentile who pursues him after seeing his standup act—are entertaining. But they seem based more in male fantasy than fictional reality.
An enjoyable but lightweight novel about a Jewish boy's awakening.
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My mother met Eddie Lipper in the Catskills on July 4, 1969, and married him in Las Vegas sixteen days later. She claimed they were pronounced man and wife at the exact moment Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon. I didn’t believe her, but I was twelve years old that summer and would have welcomed just about any man into our lives. My mother was thirty-five, and I know the same was true for her.
We were a family of four: me; my mother, Ruth; my twin sister, Sarah; and our younger brother, Seamus—a name recommended to my mother by our neighbor Mary Murphy from County Cork.
My name is Seth. Seth Shapiro. Ruth said she selected all of our names because she wanted our initials to represent how strongly we were connected: SSSSSS. She called us her chain of love. She was right, of course—the four of us were deeply and painfully
bound together—but over time I have come to see these letters as an ideogram for silence.
• • •
My parents met at NYU. My mother was an undergraduate there, and my father was in the medical school. Throughout her teenaged years Ruth had been overweight and mentally unstable. At sixteen she was hospitalized after an especially bad psychotic
episode. She regressed into an infantile state, blathering in baby babble and covering herself in her own feces. Four years later, she had lost fifty pounds and learned to keep herself calm with cigarettes and tranquilizers. For her second date with my father,
she brought him home to Long Island for a Sabbath dinner. He proposed one month later. By the fifth year of their marriage, my mother had given birth to three children. In the seventh year of their marriage, my father made an important medical discovery
that gilded his career. His photograph appeared in a Life magazine story about one hundred outstanding young Americans. He was an overnight star and left my mother for a young woman from France who had come to Boston to spend a year as a postdoc
in his lab. My mother was twenty-nine.
At that time we were living in a small house in a Boston suburb. After the divorce, my mother moved us to a four-room apartment in New Jersey in order to be closer to her family. She began dating not long after we moved. I’m sure she was in no condition to look for another husband, but her sister and father viewed my mother’s divorce as a shame, an embarrassment. I felt exactly the same.
Not having a father around, I was as self-conscious as someone with two noses. My mother was usually fixed up with men by her older sister, Rhoda—a depressing assortment of widowers or odd, bland, thoroughly second-rate men. Still, I viewed every man she went out with as a potential father, and I watched her get ready for her dates with hope and amazement. She always enlisted my help in fastening her girdle-and-brassiere contraption. I didn’t like this job, but I was the only one with the strength to do it. I didn’t like how the thing felt so stiff and heavy with metal components.
I didn’t like the columns of flesh that formed down the length of my mother’s back as I placed each clasp in its eyelet. I needed all my strength for the last couple of clasps, by which point her back would look like a Torah scroll. Sometimes when she called for my help I would catch my mother admiring her breasts in the mirror. They were pendant shaped and enormous, mapped with bluish veins beneath skin so pink and shiny that it appeared translucent.
She would cup them, lift them, lower them, then say with a sigh, “Jesus, I have great breasts.”
The next morning I would pump her for news about her date, but she was always indifferent. One man might have been too old, another not well educated enough for her. She would give me these reports as she studied a crossword puzzle through a haze of cigarette smoke. The real problem, we both knew, was that any man was too far a step down from my father—a handsome, vital, successful doctor.
One weekend, Rhoda and her husband went to a Catskills resort. Eddie was the recreation director, and Rhoda handed him Ruth’s phone number. Two weeks later, my mother drove up to the Catskills on a Friday night to meet him. My brother, sister, and
I stayed with Rhoda and her family. I loved Rhoda’s ranch house. When I opened her refrigerator, I was dazzled by the bounty of bright fruit—cherries, grapes, peaches, oranges, and bowls of melon balls. The pantry was neatly lined with enough food to
last for five years. They had owned a color television since 1965, built right into the brick wall of their family room. Their finished basement was furnished with ping-pong and billiard tables, and the closets were brimming with toys. Someday, I vowed, I would live this way.
When my mother returned on Sunday night, she was in an exuberant mood. She and Rhoda were sitting at the kitchen table; I was two steps below them, in the family room, sitting on the shag carpet with my siblings and cousins, watching The Wonderful
World of Disney, but I tuned in to what my mother was saying. “Oh, Rhoda, let me tell you, he’s the right man. I know it! He told me he’s always wanted boys to raise.” I knew how much my mother wanted her older sister’s approval, and I felt a little bad for
her when Rhoda said in a cautious-sounding voice, “Well, that’s nice for you, Ruth. That’s nice.” But I understood Rhoda’s wariness—my mother’s enthusiasm was completely unmodulated, like the voice of a person who’s hard of hearing. Barry, Rhoda’s husband, studied my mother over the top of his Ben Franklin glasses.
“Just be careful, young lady, ” Barry said.
“You don’t have to worry about me,” my mother said. “I can handle myself just fine.”
“We know,” Barry said. “You’re a good girl, Ruth.”
My mother downed her iced tea in one long gulp, like a shot of some bracing moral tonic. “Of course I am,” she declared. “I’ve always been a good girl.”
On the way home my mother told us that Eddie had asked her to marry him.
“After one weekend?” Sarah exclaimed.
“I think he’d be a good father.”
“How do you know?” she said.
“Because he told me he always wanted boys to raise.”
“You’re both out of your minds,” Sarah declared.
My mother and I exchanged looks in the rearview mirror. Her eyes were apprehensive; we both understood that there was very little connection between our words and our true feelings. In two days my brother, sister, and I were going to spend two weeks
with my father and his family at a summerhouse he had recently bought on Cape Cod. My mother had been deeply unsettled by my father’s invitation, and I sensed her high excitement about Eddie was a reaction to our upcoming visit with my father. He had shown only minimal interest in my siblings and me since the divorce, but I still loved him beyond reason and fairness, which drove my mother mad. On the three weekends a year I visited him, my mother would call at six o’clock on Sunday mornings, telling my father that it was urgent that she speak to me. My father would call out to me in an angry voice that my mother was on the phone. I knew she was doing this to create tension between my father and me, and I would berate her for calling so early. She would respond by reminding me what a bastard my father was. She still loved him too, of course, loved him as unreasonably as I did, and all we could do about it was pummel each other for our illusions.
“How come you didn’t tell Aunt Rhoda he wants to marry you?” Sarah asked.
“Because I wanted my children to be the first to know.”
“No, you didn’t,” I countered. “You were afraid Aunt Rhoda and Uncle Barry would tell you to wait.”
“Oh, for God’s sake,” Ruth exclaimed, “stop raining on my parade.”
Then she tried to get me more enthused about Eddie by saying that he was friends with all the famous ballplayers.
“Which ones?” I quizzed her. I looked at her face again in the rearview mirror as she tried to puzzle out an answer to my question.
“Sandy Koufax?” I said. “Yeah, sure.”
Eddie was coming the next evening to meet us. My mother had told us that Eddie had spent the day in the city looking for a job, using his father’s contacts in the garment industry. At the end of the day, the four of us—me, my mother, Sarah, and Seamus—sat on the steps of our apartment building waiting for him.
The commuter bus from New York stopped at the far end of the street. At six thirty we saw a flotilla of exhausted-looking men coming our way. “Oh, there he is!” my mother cried out, dramatically waving her arms. Eddie waved back. I thought he looked like a bowling ball—corpulent, low to the ground, his face darkened by a heavy five o’clock shadow. He was bald, but his liquid black eyes gave him a youthful appearance. As he approached, my mother brought a hand to her brow as if to shield her eyes from the light, but the sun was setting behind us.
Eddie’s mouth formed itself into the shape of a sickle, his teeth showing only on the side of his mouth that scythed upward—a smile that immediately reminded me of Jackie Gleason’s. Eddie placed a hand against my mother’s cheek and said, “Nice to see you, baby.” In the months to come, I became more certain that Eddie had styled himself after Jackie Gleason: the exaggerated “Nooo”; the eyes bugged out in a fit of apoplexy; the way he called my mother “baby”; his light, almost dance-like steps and
the cha-cha-cha hand motions.
Eddie knelt down, drawing level with Seamus’s face. “I’m very happy to meet you, little man.”
Seamus turned his face into Ruth’s arm.
“How are you, beautiful?” he said to my sister.
“My name is Sarah,” she replied, and kicked our mother in the back.
Then Eddie rose and shook my hand. We were the same height, but he probably outweighed me by one hundred pounds. “I’ve heard a lot about you, kid,” he said, adding a wink, as if we were already on familiar terms.
Upstairs in our second-floor apartment, my mother settled Eddie onto the couch. She was affected and off-key, like a bad actress auditioning for a role as a 1950s housewife.
“Are you comfortable, Eddie darling?” my mother asked as she positioned a fan right in front of him and helped him off with his shoes. Eddie unbuttoned his shirt and handed it to her. When he stretched his arms behind his head, I could see oval
stains the color of pee on his white undershirt. “Can I get you something to drink?” she asked. “Water? Pepsi?” Then, in a fit of improvisation, she added, “A martini? Is that something you’d like?” My mother wouldn’t have known a martini if she’d fallen
“Pepsi is fine, baby,” Eddie replied, as he stretched out on the couch and opened a copy of the Daily News. Sarah, Seamus, and I all huddled together in the kitchen.
“Why is he calling you ‘baby’?” Seamus asked.
“Because he’s bogus,” Sarah answered.
My mother ignored her and turned to me. “Seth darling, would you bring this Pepsi out to Eddie?”
“Do I have to?”
“Don’t you want to spend some time with Eddie?”
“Seamus, honey, would you bring this out to Eddie?”
He fastened himself to her leg and shook his head.
“Sarah?” she asked.
Our mother looked at us in exasperation, as if we were a failed experiment.
“Jesuschristalmighty! I’ll do it myself.”
Eddie came to the table in his undershirt. He swigged his Pepsi straight from the bottle. When he caught me staring at him, he gave me another huge wink. “So, kid, I hear you’re a star athlete.” I immediately stared at my mother, but she sent back an innocent look, as if she couldn’t imagine where he might have heard such a thing.
“I’m just OK,” I replied.
“He hits a home run nearly every time up,” my mother said.
“No, I don’t. I’ve never hit a home run. I didn’t even start for my Little League team.”
“Don’t worry, champ,” Eddie said. “We’ll make a ballplayer out of you.”
My mother smiled at me as if she had proven some contested point. Then I asked her if I could have a Pepsi too. She told me no, reminding me that we weren’t permitted to have soda at meals. “Why can Eddie have one and not me?”
Eddie squeezed my arm. “Didn’t you hear what your mother said, goddamnit!”
I was stunned; tears sprang to my eyes. Sarah’s eyes widened with shock. My mother put her hand on my arm and said to Eddie, “He’s not used to having a man around. He doesn’t have a father.”
“I do too have a father.”
My mother cast me a reproving look, as if I had revealed some well-kept family secret. Then she asked Eddie how his job interviews had gone.
“Fine. Ted Heller at Safir Swimwear said I had a job for the asking.” Eddie didn’t sound very enthusiastic.
“Well, that’s wonderful,” my mother exclaimed. “So we have two things to celebrate.”
Eddie said he had even better news. “Just before I came down to the city, I asked Mr. Cousins, the owner of the hotel, for a substantialraise. I explained to him that I had a family to support now, and he said he would seriously consider my request.”
My mother’s face seemed to have lengthened by about six inches.
“You don’t support us,” I said. “My mother does. My mother and my father.”
My mother pinched my leg under the table. “Eddie,” my mother said, “we agreed that you’d look for a job in the city. We can’t move to the Catskills.”
“Ruthie,” Eddie replied, with that sickle smile, “when Mr. Cousins offers me a raise, I’ll use it for leverage with Ted Heller.”
“Oh, Eddie darling, I’m not sure that’s such a good idea.” Sarah said, “Why would someone who sells bathing suits care how much you earn for leading calisthenics in the Catskills?”
Eddie ignored her and said to my mother, “Let’s just see what Mr. Cousins offers. Mr. Cousins said to me, ‘Eddie, if I give you a raise, I know you’ll spend it on your family. That Bernstein still has the first dime I paid him.’”
“Does Bernstein make more money than you?” I asked.
“Mr. Bernstein has been at the hotel a lot longer than I have,” Eddie said.
“So he’s more important than you,” I said.
My mother pinched me again. Then Eddie announced that he had some great news for me.
“I spoke with Mr. Cousins about having your bar mitzvah at the hotel, and he said he would rent me the nightclub at a nominal charge.”
“What about Sarah?” I said.
“What about her?” Eddie said.
“My bat mitzvah, that’s what,” Sarah said. “Seth and I are sharing the haftarah, and I’m not doing it at some hotel.”
“Me neither,” I chimed in.
Eddie gave us an incredulous look.
“Our cantor and rabbi have been preparing Seth and Sarah since last spring,” our mother explained. “They can’t go up to the Catskills to officiate a bar mitzvah.”
“That’s no problem,” Eddie said. “We can hire the rabbi in town. He does all the bar mitzvahs at the hotel.” Then Eddie continued to lay out his grand vision for the event. We would hold the ceremony in the ballroom, where the hotel held High Holiday
services. Then after the service we would go to a private room in the dining hall for lunch, and in the evening we would have the nightclub set up for a sit-down dinner. Eddie said that through his connections he could hire some top-of-the-line entertainment—a small band and a comedian.
“A comedian?” I repeated.
“I think we could get a Corbett Monica, or maybe even a Dick Shawn.”
“I’m not having a comedian at my bar mitzvah, and I don’t want a band either.”
My mother tried to explain to him that we were just interested in a simple religious ceremony.
“I’ve never heard of a kid who didn’t want a band at his bar mitzvah,” Eddie said, with a snort of disbelief.
After dinner was over, Eddie went back into the living room to watch baseball. Seamus and I helped our mother and Sarah clear the table, though the two of us had never lifted a finger to help before.
“Go and sit with him,” my mother whispered to me.
“I don’t want to.”
“Do it for me then. Just do it for me, all right?”
I went into the living room and sat next to Eddie on the couch. He was leaning forward, one hand on the channel dial. He kept changing back and forth between the Yankee game on channel eleven and the Mets game on channel nine.
“Stay with me, kid, and you’ll never miss a pitch,” he told me. I had already missed dozens of them, but I didn’t say anything. After Ruth finished cleaning up in the kitchen, she and Seamus joined us on the couch. Sarah went into the bedroom she shared with our mother to read her book, Planet of the Apes. Eddie supplied a running commentary about the games. Tom Seaver was about to pitch low and away. Cleon Jones was going to tag up. When the players didn’t do as he had predicted, he called them bums and sons of bitches. My mother feigned interest for a while, then excused herself to put Seamus to bed. When she returned, she sat next to us on the couch and opened an Agatha Christie mystery. The year before, my mother had taken us to see a doubleheader at Yankee Stadium and had spent the afternoon sitting in the bleachers reading Pride and Prejudice from cover to cover.
At ten thirty, my mother told me it was time for bed, but Eddie told her I ought to stay up because Tom Seaver was pitching a perfect game and we were witnessing history. Then one of the Cubs finally got a hit in the ninth inning. “Son of a bitch!” Eddie
“Does this mean it’s not historic anymore?” my mother asked.
“That’s right, baby,” Eddie said, and sent me another wink, as if only he and I understood how hopeless women were when it came to sports.
“All right, sweetie, bedtime,” my mother said to me.
“Good night, son,” Eddie said, and tousled my hair.
From the Hardcover edition.
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