"Hirshberg's debut novel packs both emotional punch and a vivid portrait of Jewish American life in post-WWII Boston. . . . Readers will find connections here to Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay and to Saul Bellow's classic The Adventures of Augie March." —Booklist (ALA), starred review
"This amazing mosaic of fact and fiction will hold readers in its grip from the first to last page." —Library Journal, starred review
Winner, Independent Press Award 2019 Literary Fiction
Gold Medal Winner, Best Regional Fiction, 2018 Independent Press Awards
Winner, Best Regional Fiction, 2018 National Indie Excellence Awards
Winner, NYC Big Book Award in two categories: 2018 Historical Fiction and Debut Fiction
Winner, Three CIPA EVVY Awards: 2019 Literary Fiction First Place; 2019 Historical Fiction Second Place; 2019 Debut Fiction Second place
My Mother's Son, the meticulously-crafted debut novel from David Hirshberg, is a story told by a radio raconteur revisiting his past in post-World War II Boston, the playground and battleground for two brothers whose lives are transformed by discoveries they never could have imagined. From the opening line of the book, "When you're a kid, they don't always tell you the truth," the stage is set for this riveting coming-of-age story that plays out against the backdrop of the Korean War, the aftermath of the Holocaust, the polio epidemic, the relocation of a baseball team, and the shenanigans of politicians and businessmen. Hirshberg deftly weaves together events, characters, and clues and creates a rich tapestry of betrayal, persecution, death, loyalty, and unconditional love that resonates with today's America.
|Publisher:||Fig Tree Books LLC|
|Product dimensions:||5.90(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.30(d)|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
A year later, in Boston, I met The Guy on the Radio. I was just out of the army, back from West Germany. There was a blurb in the Herald Traveler that he was going to be a guest on a radio show in the city; he was promoting a book. I figured that if I could meet him, I could ask him some questions, the usual stuff, how to break in, could he point me in the right direction, that kind of thing. I waited for the show to be over at 10:00 p.m. and approached him as he was leaving the lobby. I remember I didn’t rush up to him, tell him my name, say I was a fan. I knew that wouldn’t get so much as a glance and that he’d never break stride.
Instead, as soon as I saw him, I took a kazoo out of my pocket and went into a rendition of his theme song, “The Bear Missed the Train.” So many times I heard him play that, it’s the phonetic English for “Bei Mir Bist Du Schön,” what Uncle Jake used to sing on our car rides.
“The bear missed the train, the bear missed the train, the bear missed the train, and now he’s walking.”
“I’m going to the Copley Square Hotel,” he said, not addressing me directly, “so you can be my guide to make sure I don’t get lost.” In a few minutes, we were at the bar. Here I was, at the literal elbow of someone who’d been successful, famous, for what I was thinking I wanted to do, I wouldn’t have this opportunity again, so I launched into a monologue of what happened to me in 1952, telling him about my brushes with betrayal, disease, gambling, death, bribery, persecution, kidnapping, war, politics, escape, loyalty, forgery, unconditional love, depression, marines, theft, girls, and a dog.
I could tell that he’d been engrossed, but not wanting to push it, I stood up and said good night.
He shook my hand and said, “Hey, kid, someday you, Steven, Noodge Mauer, Myandrew, and Frankie are gonna be as well-known as the gang in my stories.” He then added, “As important as it is that you remember your Mother, Dad, Papa, Uncle Jake, Auntie Rose, Old Uncle A, and all the other people who were central to you when you were growing up, you should embrace them more as an adult, especially as you get older and the distance between you and them becomes less significant.”
I hesitated, then asked, “Are all of your characters real? Are your stories based on stuff that happened to you when you grew up?”
“Does it matter? Would you decide, one way or the other, to listen or to tune in somewhere else if you found out if I made it all up? Or most of it?”
“No,” I answered quickly, “it actually wouldn’t make a difference.”
“If it’s just reporting on the events of the day it can be entertaining for a while, especially if there’s a lively way of retelling, but it’d get tiresome, and truth be told, I’d never have enough good material for a show that goes on most nights if I had to give a verbatim account of interactions I’d had with friends, family members, and others I’ve met.
“Fictional characters have lives as well,” he went on, “they inhabit our spaces and we interact with them; it’s still a give-and-take, just not in the same sense as what’s going on here, in our conversation tonight. But never forget that a made-up person can speak to us just as well as someone who’s here in the flesh. There’s no difference whether you hear something from the point of view of first person actual or third person fictional if it interests you, moves you, or gets you to think about things from another perspective.
“Look, kid, I don’t have a clue whether the things you told me are true or not. What’s important to me is that you’ve painted pieces of art that need to be displayed, and you know what? I don’t care if they’re fakes.
“For me, life’s usually better as fiction. Yeah, you heard me right, because that way, no one can disagree with, challenge, or sue you. Now there’s no harm starting with a kernel of truth, but make sure when you cook it up it turns into something that can’t be traced back to its original form, you know, so think in terms of omelets, they begin as chicken eggs, but tell me, would anyone looking at an omelet who’d never seen a chicken’s egg be able to tell you its origin?
“Let your characters speak to you, think of yourself as a translator, there’s a million ways to say the same thing, that’s why we have synonyms, after all.
“So don’t be afraid of going off on tangents or making distortions, and blind alleys are okay too, because no one but you knows what the outcome will be and you can always make an elision to something else to get you back to where you want to be.
“And by the way, kid,” he added as he was winding down, heading toward the elevator, “everyone is going to want to know who’s who, especially relatives and those with whom you’ve interacted; they’ll spend hours trying to determine if a character is all or partly based on them in disguise. Don’t give in to the temptation to discuss this with them. That’s all about their ego, pride, and neediness, and all that’s gonna do is drain you dry.”
He shook my hand, said good night, and disappeared.
He never knew my name, and I never asked him anything about how to get into radio. But this I’ll say for sure: what he told me is the advice I followed for all these years.
Table of Contents
Prologue: The yin and yang of my life, 1
1. A couple of drunks clinging to each other for support, 7
2. And that’s how I met Rose Mischal, 16
3. He was the first adult we didn’t have to address as Mister, 28
4. Mother and Dad were not immune to the hysteria, 33
5. That bat would’ve been involved in two deaths, ten years apart, 38
6. These were the things I knew, for sure, in Boston in 1952, 41
7. What if Lot’s wife hadn’t turned around? 45
8. Hey, gimme my cut, chief, 55
9. Serendipity is an instrument that we can never learn to play, 65
10. He looked like Moses did, that’s all, so don’t never cross him, 78
11. It came out the same way The Guy on the Radio would’ve said it, 82
12. The bird princess of Africa, 91
13. What Do I Tell You A Thousand Times? 115
13. Did ya know, Solly, that they spend more on tea than
a workin’ man spends on rent? 124
15. The kisses were more akin to a detonator rigged to my
16. Can we count on you fellars? 141
17. Dad cooked the books for Papa and his pals, 154
18. I sure could use some dental floss and some extra bullets, 159
19. I was feeling the same kind of oats that old Hooch must’ve felt, 166
20. He said it the exact same way that Mother said “we’ll see,” which meant no, 171
21. Remember when Papa said something about the Holy Grail? 176
22. I wouldn’t be the one to tell any of this to Papa, 185
23. Kristallnacht, they said, they all knew about Kristallnacht, 194
24. Everyone was saying that the fix was in, 209
25. No one here’s going to tell us, that’s for sure, 214
26. Grown men danced together doing reels and jigs, 226
27. He was a hero, a real hero, and undoubtedly saved all of our lives, 229
28. Mother started referring to me as “young man,” 241
29. This was supposed to have been settled by the “war to end all wars,” 245
30. A foul ball on July Fourth off of Frankie’s bat, 257
31. The understanding that I could put things together on my own, 269
32. Uncle Jake had a premonition, 273
33. We were meant to focus on Kristallnacht, the Nuremberg Laws, and mischlinge, 286
34. You mean Little Alfredo wasn’t a hero? 291
35. And that’s how I met your grandmother, 296
36. No record of citizen Jacob Goldblum, 300
37. Everyone is going to want to know who’s who, 309
38. You’re going to tell Auntie Rose, aren’t you? 314
39. Timmy was a time, the way historians name epochs, 324
40. I Miss You Already And You’ll Always Be My Baby Boy, 331
41. The man my grandchildren call Old Uncle M, 339
42. The prism that refracted our societal attitudes, values, and policies, 343
43. I’ll ask him what he meant, 347
Glossary , 351
Reading Group Guide
- How does the opening line -- “When you’re a kid, they don’t always tell you the truth” -- manifest itself throughout the book?
- Do you relate to the opening line and if so, how?
- The author drops tells like breadcrumbs to presage later events. The very first one is the word “smirk” on page 2. Can you identify others?
- Hirshberg has said that he purposefully used a symmetrical construction for the architecture of the book. Can you pinpoint examples of this and discuss what was his purpose in setting up the book this way?
- While the origins of Joel and Steven’s names are noted, why are their parents’ names never mentioned? Is it a coincidence that four men are named Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Solomon or are they simply representative of Jewish American names from the late 19th and early 20th centuries?
- In 1952, Joel and Steven biked all over Boston. What does that tell you about the cultural changes that have taken place in the last 60 plus years?
- Does the use of foreign words, such as Schickalsfrage, enhance or impede your reading?
- Was the dilemma that Dr. Daniel Burgas faced in Korea similar to what Dr. Jacob Goldblum faced in Germany? What does that say about the choices we face?
- Other than the narrator Joel, who is the most important character in the book and why do you feel this way?
- Since Joel is a radio raconteur, is it possible that he made up all the stories? If so, why would he have done this?
- What does the author mean when he writes, “…solitude in moderation can be an ally if you get along famously with your conscience”?
- Do you agree that, “There’s no difference whether you hear something from the point of view of first person actual or third person fictional if it interests you, moves you, or gets you to think about things from another perspective”?
- There are three distinct generations in the book, examples of which include: Papa and his pals; the boys’ parents and aunt and uncle; and the boys’ friends. Are the generational distinctions presented in the book a thing of the past or do they exist today, and if so, how have they changed?
- What is your reaction to what the author says about the events of 1952: that they were “…the prism that refracted our societal attitudes, values, and policies toward war, disease, politics, sports, business, and immigration”?
- Does setting the book in an earlier time allow you to have a conversation about current headlines without wrapping them in today’s ‘talking heads’ political climate?
The yin and yang of my life
When you’re a kid, they don’t always tell you the truth.
They tell others that they don’t want to hurt you or they think you won’t understand. But in reality, it’s just easier if they tell you what makes them feel good, or what gets them out of a jam.
That, as you devotees know, is how I opened each radio show five nights a week for forty-seven years. I write it down now on the anniversary of my last show as I glance at the walls of the studio, where they taped up a photo of me from each year, a mélange of shots that arrested a moment of time, but they appear to be a film strip if you sweep your head from beginning to end, taking in all the pictures, a short reel that exposes customs of dress, grooming habits, and attitudinal stancesthe outsides, the two dimensions that others recognized when they saw the me that they thought they knew. I’m all too familiar with these men, some of whom I loved; others, well, let’s just say I’ve taken my leave without rancor but sometimes with embarrassment. No, I don’t deny the veracity of the glossies, the snippets that captured me with mustache, clean-shaven, long-haired, crew-cut, with wide lapels (thank God, no Nehru jackets), thin ties, aviator glasses, contacts, tie-dyed T-shirts and cashmere sweaters, often wearing the red-and-blue Braves cap, the Boston Braves that is, which meshes nicely now with my speckled beard that still has a wisp of reddish strands, a trick designed to fool me into thinking that I’m younger than I am.
I acknowledge the optimism behind the first one, the 1964 headshot where I’m still in my army uniform, having mustered out only a couple of weeks previously from active duty in West Germany. I’d gone to my first interview wearing it, perhaps to impress the station boss; he was, after all, a high muckety-muck in the reserves, having won ribbons in Korea, but the real reason I wore it is probably more mundane, given that this was still the era in which it was said that girls liked men in uniform.
He listened to tapes of some of my shows from Armed Forces Radio. Then, suppressing a smirk, I presented documents to him to bolster my case, including an article in the Berliner Morgenpost about my private meeting with the president after he gave his famous “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech the prior June. Prominently displayed on the page was a photo of him smiling broadly at me. I could tell that the station manager was impressed. He asked me if I had any other things that would support my candidacy for the position. I retrieved an article that came from my college newspaper my senior year, 1961, which featured a picture of me with a famous radio humorist sharing a beer at a local hangout, where I interviewed him about his stories that captivated young and old alike, regarding his time growing up in the Midwest during the Depression and afterward in the War years (when it’s capitalized and used as a standalone word, it always refers to World War II). And finally, I handed him an amusing piece from my high school paper that reported on a discussion I had in 1957 with my dog, a black Lab, who was lamenting the fact that the Russians sent dogs into space and all we sent were mice. It contained a shot of him with a caption underneath that said, “Depressed that he couldn’t be Muttnik.”
I got the job.
I can recall the opening of my first show without resorting to any notes: “On May 10, 1952, when our soldiers were bogged down in a war in Korea, our doctors were battling the polio epidemic, and our elected officials were assaulting each other in a political campaign, my brother Steven and I surreptitiously witnessed a shakedown that enmeshed us in the events of the day in a way that affected us for the rest of our lives. I was twelve and a half and my brother was fourteen.” I’ve spent the intervening time between then and now giving tidbits of what happened that year, intermingled with other observations about actions big and small, parochial and ubiquitous, that’ve occurred since those days.
Most studio visitors take in the pictures on the wall chronologically, examining closely, pointing, noting something in the background, muttering to themselves, stepping sideways a few feet, wash, rinse, repeat, engaging me in small talk about some particular thing that catches their attention, usually relating it to an event in their lives. Once a year my brother would take the occasion to bring a new photo; he’d step back, alternating peering between it and me and it and the other shots, and give the imperceptible head bob, which intimated that he could differentiate the glint from the prior year, the presentation as opposed to the pose, the body language that only he could interpret.
When the last photo was hung a year ago, Steven’s intense scrutiny of the sags, the creases, the squint, the distractedness that’s unambiguous to a sibling, was a signal as obvious to me as a Morse code SOS. It’s time, life was tapping out, dot dot dot, to say good-bye, something that he’d just done, having announced to his partners his intention to wind down his appointments with patients by the end of the year.
I wondered if what my brother noticed was caused or exacerbated by my recent finding of a trove of handwritten papers that’d been nestled within the inside pocket of a valise, stashed in my house for almost thirty years, the keepsake that reminded me of a trip my aunt had made more than seventy years earlier, now exposed as the chintzy vessel that housed the real treasure.
I initially misinterpreted my brother’s advice as a call to retire, when in fact he was simply urging me to walk away from a daily grind, a two-hour radio show five nights a week, Sunday through Thursday from eight to ten. From your letters and emails you marveled at my ability to riff for 120 minutes, seemingly off the cuff, a stream of consciousness about my life, starting with when I was a kid, right after the War, with my friends Noodge Mauer, Myandrew, Frankie, my brother, our respective love interests Zippo and Susie, The Guy on the Radio, and my dogadults making guest appearances, certainly never getting star billing. I take pride in your encomiums, thank you, but it wasn’t as if I made it all up extemporaneously. I’d get up early, come into the studio before anyone elsesolitude in moderation can be an ally if you get along famously with your conscienceand establish an endpoint from which I’d work backward, a deductively logical reverse process that served me well, a way in which to come up with an outline, the sinew that was all that was necessary to begin construction of the body scaffolding for my soliloquy.
A few months ago, Steven accepted a dollar-a-year position at the university hospital, coordinating efforts to better understand and treat post-polio syndrome, the legacy of the epidemic that we thought we’d conquered, only to be fooled years later in the same way the balloon of our unbridled optimism following the surrender of Germany and Japan in 1945 had been pierced by the Korean War in 1950. Witnessing him make the smooth transition into a new role eased the process for me to do the same, and that shouldn’t have surprised me. He’d led the way for me throughout my childhood, and while I was grateful, it wasn’t until I was an adult that my admiration for him was further enhanced as I recognized that no older sibling had been there for him, the curse of the firstborn.
Yes, the last picture on the wall was the trigger for Steven to offer that I, too, move on, which I did halfway through 2011. At first, my agent suggested that I go through the station’s archives and pull out my favorite shows from each year, have them transcribed and edited, a surefire way to deliver a product to members of my audience, a built-in group numbering about 250,000, the result of national syndication that brought my show far beyond the Boston metro area. While this might’ve made sense financially, it was something I could’ve done while still at the station showing up five nights a week and didn’t reflect the change that my brother and I both felt was necessary.
After my last broadcast, they were kind enough to allow me to come by the studio to write, at dawn, when it was uncannily quiet, a perfect setting, the only sound being the sporadic whoosh of the air-conditioning kicking in, generating an autonomous shudder, my body anticipating the cool blast that would remind me it was summer, a necessary cue to a person who’s in a space with no windows and no other stimuli other than what he conjures up on his own. With each shiver, I’d get up and pace, much as I did when the green light went on and the young woman in the control room provided the nod-smile that indicated the lavaliere mike pinned to my lapel or collar was live, a silent admonition to remind me not to clear my throat, crinkle paper, or talk back to her when she’d occasionally contact me through the earpiece.
Many times, in the middle of a program, I’d glance over to the wall opposite the photos, where I’d hung my Braves baseball cap and a souvenir bat, the former highlighting fond memories of going to the park with my friends, the latter being the proximate cause of a relative’s death and another man’s murder, these two objects together bringing forth a sobering juxtaposition of the yin and yang of my life.
But there’ll be no more control room signals, no more hushed voices in my ear, no more green lights, no more writing the outline for a two-hour show. No, that’s all behind me. Now it’s about act two, a bit of uncharted territory. I feel like Marco Polo, whose mission was clear but who couldn’t tell you much about the outcome until he finished his journey.
So I start by staring into a mirror that I’ve hung next to the most recent picture on the wall. Reflected in it is a story both personal and universal that I’d skirted around gingerly for all these years, a memoir about betrayal, disease, gambling, death, bribery, persecution, kidnapping, war, politics, escape, loyalty, forgery, unconditional love, depression, marines, theft, girls, and a dog. In it you’ll find extraordinary revelations about members of my family and the world we lived in, beginning at a time when I caught a glimpse into adulthood, or, as I think about it now, perhaps this was simply the first peep into the rearview mirror of childhood. I told my brother that unlike my radio shows, here the adults take stage, front and center, exiting only when they depart, leaving behind their legacies, forever in the penumbra of my imagination and displayed through my actions, behaviors, and wants.
“You are your mother’s son,” he said definitively and presciently, “so despite the fact that I’ve been there all along, I don’t know what you’ll reveal or withhold or how you’ll interpret your life.”
“My mother’s son,” I said in a way to hear the phrase in my own voice. “Is that a double entendre?”
He smiled as he cupped his hand around my neck, a wordless gesture that conveyed both affection and recognition that it was the perfect time to take his leave.