Son of a rabbi, budding astronomer Gabriel Geismar is on his way from youth to manhood in the 1970s when he falls in love with the esteemed and beguiling Hundert family, different in every way from his own. Over the course of a decade-long drama unfolding in New Orleans, Philadelphia, New York, Chicago, and the Wisconsin countryside, Gabriel enters more and more passionately and intimately into the world of his elective clan, discovering at the inmost center that he alone must bear the full weight of their tragedies, past and present. Yet The Book of Getting Even is funny and robust, a novel rich in those fundamentals we go to great fiction for: the exploration of what is hidden, the sudden shocks, the feeling at last of life laid bare.
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The Book of Getting Even
By Benjamin Taylor
Steerforth PressCopyright © 2008 Benjamin Taylor
All rights reserved.
THE PURE PRODUCTS
He sneezed four times, always four, like everybody on the maternal side. Sequence was from firm to forcible to fierce to ferocious. Then there'd be peace, in which he felt in his limbs and vitals the secret knowledge of sneezing. Between fits of four the rabbi's son had lived and prospered here — bless you, Babylon, his place to start from, that was New Orleans. One day as a seven-year-old he'd found, on the steps of the temple, a katydid and praying mantis locked obscurely together. Were they killing each other? Falling in love? While his mother watched, Gabriel Geismar had taken a rock from the flower bed and crushed the two creatures, ground them to a uniform paste. She had hauled him up by the shirtfront, she had wept. "For an experiment!" he'd protested. She was a deliberate kind of mother, did not say that boys were naughty, said through tears that certain of their deeds were. Feeling good and allied to the violent quick of nature, he'd endured her lecture on unmotivated cruelty.
When she told the rabbi what their son had perpetrated on the congregation steps, Milton Geismar said, with Talmudic certitude, "Little boys live near to the ground. They're in close touch with the insects and like to kill them. All but the tootie frooties do. Make that boy feel guilty and you'll ruin him!"
As a father Rabbi Geismar had been demonstrative. Bringing the belt down sharply on Gabriel's butt and bare legs, he'd wailed, in real despair, "Mamzer! Curse!" Their only child this was, and not quite right, and the humiliation of it kept Geismar in an active volcanic state, his violence the deep-down magma ready on a pretext to leap up. A son should not cling to his mother. A son should not be so afraid of things, reptiles, firecrackers, unfamiliar odors. There was, in addition, Gabriel's fear of vomiting — other people vomiting. (When the rebbitzin would drop him at the picture show on Sunday afternoons, she'd go in and ask the management, since he was too shy, "Is there any vomiting in this picture? Because my boy can't take it.") A son should not be such an eccentric prig. A son should not have bathroom secrets. A son should not draw filthy, dirty, disgusting pictures for his mother to find under a desk blotter or at the back of a drawer and break down over.
These Gabriel somehow couldn't keep himself from producing, year after year. When he was nearly fifteen, his father had crooked a finger and confronted him with one of the more original — a man embracing a member that grew Sequoia-like from the middle of him and disappeared into the clouds — and sent the boy flying with a slap. A watershed slap, as it turned out, the last of its kind. Something in Gabriel's stare as he got up from the floor, holding his cheek, must have frightened Geismar. Something said: You are a brute and a fiend and I'll never resemble you in any way or grieve when you go. You are as unhappy an accident in my life as I am in yours. A stare can say a lot. Each of us is the other's misfortune, shake hands and a bargain. But if ever you try to hit me again ...
That spring Mrs. Kilbourne, in charge of literature at New Orleans Country Day, had presented twelfth grade with The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. "In his loneliness and fixedness," she told them, like she'd just thought it up, "the Mariner yearneth towards the journeying Moon, and the stars that still sojourn, yet still move onward." She was an actress, when pedagogy demanded. She closed the book and finished from memory: "And every where the blue sky belongs to them, and is their appointed rest, and their native country and their own natural homes, which they enter unannounced, as lords that are certainly expected and yet there is a silent joy at their arrival." Kilbourne knocked the senioritis out of them with that. All minds bent to her.
She told about the acte gratuit — espoused by a café philosophy of recent prestige. But Gabriel felt he'd got there long ago and without any help from Romanticism or the Existentialists. Without, moreover, any of the Mariner's inconveniences. Bless the creepy crawlers of the earth, bless them unawares? There'd be no lurking, sadder but wiser, at wedding feasts, no seeking for someone to confide his guilty secret to. In the long ago, without a pang, Gabriel annihilated two bright green things.
Having skipped third and sixth grades along the way, he won, at sixteen, a full ride to a college he liked the name of, even if considered hard to say by friends and relations. Came the third week of August now, 1970, time to go. To get public facts out of the way: the previous week Janis Joplin had flown home to Port Arthur for her tenth high-school reunion. On Block Island twelve FBI agents posing as bird-watchers nabbed Father Daniel Berrigan, a fugitive from justice since his conviction on charges of destroying Selective Service documents. By the banks of the Pedernales, former President and Mrs. Lyndon Johnson enjoyed a private screening of Patton, the hit movie of the summer. In San Francisco, Beniamino Bufano, who fifty-three years earlier had protested America's entry into the Great War by severing his trigger finger and sending it to Woodrow Wilson, died in penury. At Tan Son Nhut airfield, Spiro Agnew would praise the South Vietnamese for "suffering so much in freedom's cause," pledge "no lessening" of American support, and add that "the Cambodian situation seems to be developing very well."
Meanwhile, in New Orleans, Dr. Sheldon Kretschmar, pediatrician, booster, the worst, the noisiest Nixon-lover in town, pillar of the American Medical Association, who'd seen Gabriel through chicken pox, scarlet fever, mumps, and, in early adolescence, a spell of asthma so severe it had led to pneumonia, looked down the youth's throat one last time and said, "Tulane or LSU?"
Neither. Gabriel named the college of his choice as best he could with a depressor on his tongue. Dr. Kretschmar took it out. "Swarthmore," the rabbi's son repeated. He'd put off this checkup to the very last day, but couldn't matriculate without it.
Kretschmar revolved the name. "Never heard of it."
"Swarthmore College, sir, outside of Philadelphia, and a good-looking place by the brochure they send."
"Well, I've never heard —"
"It's a liberal arts college." But the word "liberal" in all its meanings seemed to trouble Kretschmar. He looked Gabriel up and down, seeing not less than another Rosenberg or Hiss in the making, and wished him all the best.
After any doctor's appointment, even with the optician or the orthopedist, when Gabriel came home the rabbi would ask, "Did he look down your throat? Did he look up your address?" — which as a little boy Gabriel had thought funny; but for how many years can you laugh at the same joke?
"Dad, please! You've been saying that since I don't know when."
"Nonsense, son, I just now thought it up!" Milton Geismar, like fathers generally, rehearsed all quips till they stood there embodied and part of the furniture. You are beaten, you are entertained. You don't know from one quarter-hour to the next what kind of day it is. Conundrum of Gabriel's young life: In addition to being a trollish and savage father, Geismar was a game and witty one. Any pulpit humorist can say to his congregants, "How odd of God to choose the Jews." But it takes inspiration to add, "Not odd of God. The goyim annoy Him." (He was a preening father, too, propelled by unconditional self-admiration. They'd told Milt Geismar he looked like Victor Mature. It went to his head.) At home, by some counterstroke of temperament, regular as clockwork, the charmer would vanish and there the hellhound ogre would be, soberly telling wife and child that they had ruined his life. "Both mentally and physically! I will get a breakdown, do you hear?" Then his voice would drop to an urgent, confidential register. "A nervous breakdown." Mother. Father. Because of her you knew you were cherished. Because of him you knew you were in harm's way. Gabriel had reason to regard the story of Abraham binding Isaac as nothing remarkable. A father was somebody who might decide to kill you. He'd carry on in third person, like a sports hero or gangster: "Tell a lie to Milton Geismar? You'll wish you hadn't!" "What Milt Geismar says he'll do, he does!" Bragging on himself, threatening you: "Nobody double-crosses Geismar!" Or else he'd start to blubber and need comforting. Nervous breakdowns — what exactly did they look like? The rabbi's son had settled on an image, not displeasing, of the old man doing violence to himself — tearing off his ears, ripping loose his lower jaw, plucking out his handsome eyeballs.
That evening Gabriel took a valedictory ride to town on the St. Charles Avenue streetcar, got off where the track turns around at Poydras, walked along Chartres, then briskly down Toulouse, looking for an infamous low green door in the wall. A gentleman in a public facility at the levee had told him this was the place. You paid your money, you went in, you had yourself some fun.
He stripped to nothing at the locker provided, then thought better of it and, to restrain the bare fact, pulled his shorts back on, for this hideaway excited at once with its miscellany of smells, an omnium gatherum, musky, civety, Liederkranzy, of what a celebrated periodical of the day only boasted of being but these baths were: man at his best. (Told that that magazine was for "the man's man" and utterly misunderstanding the phrase, Gabriel had hurried off to buy a copy. Any mention of the word "man" stirred him. Even a copy of Reinhold Niebuhr's Nature and Destiny of Man, found one afternoon on his father's highest shelf, had merited fifteen seconds of browsing.)
He entered the warren of cubicles, moving briskly through corridors of men with towels around their middles. Each open door framed in the variable light a bare male, some recumbent on cots, some standing; some showing off. As for the closed doors, they were also very interesting. Gabriel had an impulse to knock at one, hearing mirthful noise from inside, but thought better of it.
Farther down the hallway a grinning king-sized cracker tossed his head side to side, saying as Gabriel passed, "Git in here, sugar," beckoning with an authoritative motion of the arm, assured, official even, as if directing traffic in an emergency.
Which this was. Gabriel entered. Expertly, the man kicked the door shut with his foot. He asked in the courtliest way if he could take Gabriel's underwear off. This is what they mean by "den of iniquity," Gabriel told himself. I like it. But twelve seconds later, having moaned and shuddered back into his real and habitual self, awakened from the pleasure, he felt another way entirely and pushed the head aside, yanked up his underpants, and wanted to be out of there. His mind veered to numbers, clean things, cleanest anywhere in or out of the world. Primes, the haughtily exclusive category of those divisible only by themselves. And perfects, perfect on account of being equal to the sum of their divisors. And amicables, two numbers each of which is equal to the sum of all the exact divisors of the other except the number itself. On these it was a particular pleasure to dwell. 220 and 284 for instance. Gabriel added the divisors, just to confirm their amicability (1 + 2 + 4 + 71 + 142, like that), then those of 284 (1 + 2 + 4 + 5 + 10 + 11 + 20 + 22 + 44 + 55 + 110). Easy in your head. But now try 17,296 and 18,416. Some four hundred such pairs of amicable numbers have been discovered, with more out there certainly. But whether the number of them is finite or infinite nobody has yet nailed down; Gabriel would give his eyeteeth to know.
Here was where he returned to, the frontier he reconnoitered: infinity. The physical universe may or may not be a case of it. But the mind, as attested by calculation of any irrational number to the nth decimal place, plainly was. And this was the real fun, according to Gabriel, embodied passion being but the other fun. Now the worshipper on the floor, exultant in his degradation, kissed Gabriel's hand, his poor put-upon left one, then drew back, asked the inevitable question. "What's wrong witch yuh hand?"
"Born that way." The standard answer he gave.
"Don't make no diffunce."
But it had, it did. For such an irregularity little allowance is made. At intervals you must be reminded. The littlest thing, really, an error of some kind in the genetic manufacture of him — on his left hand Gabriel had two thumbs, absolutely identical, down to the moons in the nail beds and the lines across the knuckles. Conjoined Siamese-style, functioning perfectly well as one, they had yet drawn the stares and incredulity of the world (of New Orleans, that is) and made for Gabriel Geismar a destiny.
"Looks like when yuh see a turnip or tomatah trying to turn into two." And now the man bestowed a kiss specifically on the thumbs. "What's yuh name?"
"What's yuh name?"
"Um, Forrest, Forrest Delavoy," Gabriel lied, pressing into service the name of a detested classmate at Country Day.
"Forrest Dee-la-voy! I do like that name."
Here Gabriel made to leave, shaking the man's hand, businesslike; but the irony of it caused a laugh to well up in both of them.
"Don't say goodnight."
"I've got to go somewhere tomorrow morning."
"Where you goin'?"
"Pensuhvainyuh? You college boy?"
"Knew it even witch yuh clothes off! How come you go way up there?"
A shrug. "I've got to head home now."
"You ain't even asked my name."
No, indeed. Gabriel had wanted this man nameless as a cloud or clump of earth.
"Clarence Rappley. I ain't from here. Wouldn't be from here on a bet. I'm from Dulac. Not Dulac itself. Outside of."
"Good to know you," Gabriel said, and saying so seemed to scatter his resistance a little. Clarence helped himself to a kiss, and though Gabriel intended it to be closemouthed and brief, that kiss lingered out, opened up, tasted good.
"Let's go back to my crib."
"Down in Dulac?"
His place, excellent, with a rabbi and rebbitzin asleep down the hall. "No, Clarence."
"Just lemme walk you home."
Getting loose of Clarence Rappley would not be so easy as saying no. "All right, then."
"Go put yuh clothes on."
* * *
They walked up Toulouse, then down Bourbon, not saying much, drawing only an occasional stare from the milling, gabbing, falling-down throng — Texans, Arkansans, tourists out for a big time, some of them by that hour relaxing in the gutter. These revelers were busy, didn't care what a big hayseed and a little Jew were doing on the town.
At the edge of the Quarter, Gabriel again tried to take his leave. "So happens I be goin' yuh way," Clarence Rappley told him. "What street yuh live on?"
"Josephine," Gabriel lied.
"I just happen to be going to Josephine myself."
So at St. Charles and Poydras they boarded the streetcar, in which people did stare. Clarence outfaced them. "Nice night if it don't rain!" He took the seat beside Gabriel and threw a companionate arm around him. "Stop it!" Gabriel growled. A gentleman in a seersucker suit and white shoes and a boater looked interested. A freckle-faced colored woman fixed an eye on Gabriel's supernumerary thumb. A marmish blond woman made a small mouth and looked askance. A pitch-black man in a busboy's uniform said, concurring, "If it don't rain." Gabriel leapt up, made for the other side of the car. "I don't even know this person! He's followed me all the way from Toulo — I mean from Chartres Street. He's harassing me!"
"Call the po-lice, you so upset," suggested the freckle-faced woman, and let out a laugh.
The seersuckered man, who'd been screening himself with the day's Picayune, kept peering over it. "Like she say, call the law!" the busboy said, and let out a hoot. Everyone went silent, waiting for the other shoe to fall, which it did. A loutish drunken character was emboldened to yell, as those two blacks were the only two on board, "You jigaboos shut up!" Astonished silence. "Bad enough having to ride with you." Silence, shame. "And you there, you pipe down too. Don't know him — in a pig's ass you don't!"
With that the seersuckered gent disappeared altogether behind his Picayune. Gabriel pulled the cord, quickstepped from the car at Lee Circle. Head lowered, bullish, Clarence Rappley followed.
Gabriel flew down Howard, Clarence hollering after him the plain truth. "You cahwud! Cahwud's what you is, Fahrust Delavoy! If that's even yuh name! Cause it sounds mighty phony to me!" Storming on, not turning around, Gabriel noticed he couldn't see the pavement for tears starting into his eyes, couldn't have spoken if he'd tried, but turned now to face his rightful accuser. Clarence slapped at the air, then made as if to punch Gabriel, right left right, but careful that the blows fell short, and was upon him in an ironbound hug. Gabriel wriggled a moment. Clarence Rappley set him free.
Excerpted from The Book of Getting Even by Benjamin Taylor. Copyright © 2008 Benjamin Taylor. Excerpted by permission of Steerforth Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
1. The Pure Products,
2. Lightning in a Bottle,
3. Seeing Stars,
4. 1977: Sanctuary,
5. In the Great World,