David Arbus will be graduating from high school in the spring of 1975. His parents are divorced, and he can join the world of one or the other: embrace his mother’s Hasidic Jewish sect, or go into his father’s line of work, running a burlesque theater in the heart of New York’s Times Square. He decides to join the family business. What else would a healthy seventeen-year-old with an interest in photography do?
From the acclaimed author of The Unthinkable Thoughts of Jacob Green, Peep Show is the bittersweet story of a young man split between a mother trying to erase her past and a father struggling to maintain his dignity in a less-than-savory business that is growing edgier by the day. It’s both a “humane, compassionate and very moving” story of a broken family, and an insightful look at the elaborate rituals, assumed names, and fierce loyalties of two secret worlds that strips away the curtains of both (Kirkus Reviews).
“An interfamilial culture clash of epic proportions . . . Braff makes the most of the comic potential inherent in his outlandish premise, but he sees well beyond the laughs. This is a powerful, sensitively told coming-of-age story about the ways in which rigid worldviews extract their pounds of flesh from us all, especially the young.” —Booklist (starred review)
“Haunts long after the final page.” —People
|Publisher:||Workman Publishing Company, Inc.|
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Part I Spring 1975
I know I'm in here. Sleeping but not really. A movie with extras, so vivid and involved. I'm in my father's theater in the dream, a room off the lobby. Two dancers want their picture taken, arm in arm. I lift a camera from the floor but it's heavy and has a sash strap that tangles. They laugh as I struggle and when I see them through the lens they both have their tops off. I try to shoot but there's no click, no sound or flash. The girls are annoyed and restless and one of them points at me.
"You need to lift it from the back. From the back!" I watch them approach me and one of them kneels on the floor at my feet. I hear a crash, a heavy thudding or a tumbling of great weight and glass that's smashing downward outside my door and I am sitting up before I think to do so.
I run to the hallway. My mother and sister are both staring down the staircase. Debra looks at me.
"It slipped," she says.
"The TV," she says. "It was heavy."
I walk closer to them and look over the banister. It's my dad's. Upside down on the landing with the screen smashed, a brick to a windshield. There are four crude puncture holes in the wall, which curves around the circular staircase. Two of the pegs in the railing are gone. My mother's goal was to move it while I slept, to bury it in the garage with all the hefty bags and boxes marked SECULAR. Nice job. It is so rare that Miss Hasid USA is the idiot, the one to blame. I feel vindicated standing here next to my sister, so I laugh a little but it's not meant to be mean. My mother stares at me, pondering how to distribute this mess to someone other than herself. Instead, she heads for her room.
"Why throw it down, Ma?" I say.
"We didn't throw it," says Debra.
"You didn't? Look at it."
My mother reverses and walks quickly toward me. "Today is the most important day of my life. If you want me to feel bad just ... don't."
"I was sleeping. All I asked is —"
"Why it was tossed down."
"It slipped," says Debra.
My mother heads to her room but stops again. "I have twenty-five people coming here in a half hour. Let me tell you what I need from you. There is a poster over your bed of a man wearing lipstick. I need you to take it down. Please go do it now."
We stare at each other. I turn to face what she sees. A portrait of Ziggy Stardust bending over a microphone stand. When I look back at her she is already in her room.
"Look at the holes in the wall," Debra says softly, still on the staircase.
"Get dressed!" my mother says. "He'll be here in fifteen minutes."
"You said a half hour," Debra says.
I follow my sister into her room and stand by her dresser. "That belonged to Dad."
"It was an accident," she says. "Leave her alone."
"It didn't roll down, Deb."
"You really think she'd do that on purpose?"
"To him, yes."
"On this day, of all days? Let me get dressed. The rabbi's coming."
"Maybe he can fix the wall."
My sister doesn't laugh. She doesn't even smile. She looks frazzled, searching for a hairbrush, the dress she'll wear. I sit on her bed and look up at her light yellow walls. Three portraits of the grand rabbi, blessed be he, hang in this bedroom. By the window he's got the beard of Santa Claus and he's trying to smile. A melancholy grin. The bags under his eyes look like twenty-pound teardrops. Maybe they're filled with two thousand years of oppression and pogroms. Sean Cassidy, a Teen Beat poster, hung there just two years ago. Parker Stevenson was above the bed and Leif Garrett and that kid from James at Fifteen were on the closet door. She had a stuffed Big Bird that used to sit on the bed and an H.R. Pufnstuf doll that played the theme song when you pulled the string. They're all gone now. Bagged and tagged and piled into the garage. I watch her lay out her dress, black, long sleeved, and nearly to the floor.
"Did you do the prayer?" my mother yells from her room.
"I'm trying!" my sister says, looking at me.
"I saw Dad the other night," I tell her.
She freezes then. "In New York?"
"He said he might drop by. To congratulate you."
"That's what he said but —"
"Does Mom know?"
I stand from her bed and make my way to the door. "I thought I'd let you tell her."
"Dena!" my mother yells, which is what she now calls Debra. My sister reaches under her bedside table and slides a pitcher of water and a basin out into view. She pours the water over her right hand and then over the left. She repeats this three times and says a blessing in Hebrew under her breath. When she finishes she dries her hands and glances my way.
"Let me get dressed."
"Are you ready for this?" I say.
She pushes the pitcher underneath the table. "You asked me that last night."
"I forget what you said."
She shrugs and looks down at her fingernails. "It's not a funeral, you know?"
"Feels like it. Like someone's about to get buried."
"You mean me?" she says, and her eyes meet mine.
Maybe I do. Maybe that's what it is. I look at my sister and it feels like she's leaving. As if I need to miss her. Before our father moved to New York, we'd sit on the top step of the staircase together and listen to the parties, the people he'd bring home from work. They were loud and they'd cackle as they drank and I remember laughing on purpose so Debra wouldn't be scared.
"Why are you staring at me?" she says.
"David," my mother says from the hall, and I wait for her to say more.
"Mom called you," Debra says.
I nod and head back into the hallway, then into my room. I don't see her. I lift my Instamatic from the bedside table and take a picture of the wreckage on the stairs. The disfigured wall. Click. The snapped railing. Click. The TV is wrapped in its own cord and there's broken glass beneath it. Click. The second I return to my bedroom I see what's missing. Un-fucking-believable. I find her in the garage, in one of her potato-sack dresses, rolling up Bowie as quickly as she can.
"Give it back to me."
"Just for the ceremony."
"It belongs to me, Ma!"
"I'll give it back to you tonight."
She hands it to me. "Then keep your door closed."
"I said I would."
"And help me with the television."
"Is that a joke?"
"Oh, you need a favor ... from me. Just bend your knees and pick it up," I say, and start to walk inside.
I run past her and into the house. I grab the TV from the sides, hoist it onto my shoulder.
"Be careful of the glass," she yells, and I'm flying with it through the living room and into the kitchen, the laundry room, and out to the garage, where I get some momentum, and fling the thing into a silent arc that just exploooodes when it hits the concrete floor. The screen turns to dust and the pieces scatter everywhere and slide in shards within seconds. My mother's face is all I see from the laundry room. It's the one I'd expect she'd have. "Great," she says, softly, shutting the door.
I shouldn't have done that. The idea swirled in my mind and it felt like it would be satisfying but it broke into bits instead of just landing in a chunk. It'll take days for her to get over it. But of course she wants me to let her down. I'm the dissident, just giving her what she expects. I pick up a piece of the carnage, a hunk of cabinet, and throw it like a Frisbee at the pyramid of boxes. It sticks in one marked BOOKS AND PICS before dropping to the floor. I walk over to the box and tear it open. Disenfranchised Grief; Trapped inside the Mirror; The Picture of Dorian Gray; Goodbye, Columbus; Sunshine; Mr. and Mrs. Bo Jo Jones. The photographs and postcards are stacked in yellow folders. Some of them are pinned to each other, from water I guess, and some completely ruined. Sunsets, lots of them, Long Beach Island ...
"David!" my mother yells from inside.
My parents in white cable-knit sweaters. Her head is tilted, almost touching his shoulder. He has the cigar. Another one of my dad, a thin mustache, waving from the driver's seat of a Cadillac. Debra as a baby. Some lady on the couch. An orange tree. Our neighbor Mrs. Shapiro with Heather Ewing. Me and Heather Ewing on the driveway. A couple of years ago, in the tenth grade, she showed me and Bobby Finkelstein her vagina. We never asked her to. She just volunteered. I remember it being hairy and forbidden and Bobby reached to touch it and Heather punched his ear and it bled. Here's a picture of Heather, Debra, and my dad. He's probably fifteen years younger than he is now — no goatee or double chin — and he's blowing into the tip of his thumb like a bugler, his cheeks filled with air. I open another box right next to it. Record albums and books on top of more pictures. Brain Salad Surgery, Rubber Soul, Live from Folsom Prison. Violence in America. Business and Finance. Hitler's Lair. Helmut Newton. On the cover of the Helmut Newton is a woman on her knees on the floor with a horse-riding bit in her mouth. Her nipples have paint on them but it might be food, like smeared blueberries.
"He's here," my mother screams. "He's here, Dena!"
Through the small garage-door window I see him. A holy man from Brooklyn. Tiny and slump shouldered in an oversized fedora. I remember him from the baal teshuva compound in Maine. Rabbi Liebersohn. He has a long white beard that ends above the paunch in his stomach and kind wrinkled eyes. He glances down at the wet grass below his shoes and lifts his foot. Two young men, in the same black clothes and hat, are at his side. They hold his elbows, moving him slowly toward our porch, as if he might slip from their hands. When my mother comes out to greet him, she smiles and sort of bows, her fingers clasped behind her back. He says something and then cranes his neck from one end of the house to the other.
I grab as many pictures as I can from both boxes and run inside and up to my room. I spill them on the carpet, separating the good from the destroyed. My father in a top hat looks like the character from Monopoly. My mother and sister on a sled on a hilltop. My mother, smiling in this one, the way she just smiled at the holy man. I hear a baby scream downstairs, then a woman's voice in Yiddish. When I open my door I see them. The Levitzes, the Sandbergs, the Hymans — all synagogue people she met at the compound — plus the Tartaskys and the Greenbaums, the Mitklins and Debra's new best friend, Sarah, wearing the same exact black dress as all the girls. The married women wear sheitels, which are bad brown wigs, and the men have long beards and yarmulkes or hats. Big families arrive together but separate into different sides of the mechitzah, a dividing wall for those with penises and those without. The Levitzes are typical with their five or six kids. A rising slope of heads, the oldest a teen. Their mother, Chaya, is the missionary. She got my mom to turn frum. I remember because I'd just had my ninth birthday, Debra was seven, and my mom lost a baby, a miscarriage. It was October 1967. Chaya was always with Becca when they came to the house. These ladies in wigs in our kitchen, talking to my mother in whispers. My father was there and I knew he wasn't happy. He especially despised the records they gave my mom, the sermons she played all day long. The grand rabbi in his early thirties. Deb and I knew every beat of them, every word, the rising applause, the funny curls in his accent. But we never knew how far it would go. The level she'd take it. Becca's husband, a man named Pinchus, is a "learner," a guy who studies Torah all day and night. He's the man who introduced her to Yiddish and Talmud and the Shulchan Aruch. I see him talking to his wife right now. She's the head of the "snoods" as I call them, my mother's new clique. Debra says they keep lists of who did and didn't do what in the remarkably stringent and uneventful world of Hasidic Judaism. So-and-so was seen touching the hand of a yeshiva boy on Gilman Street at 5:50 p.m. Blah-blah was seen eating a Snickers bar behind the synagogue and Dumb Fuck didn't wear a yarmulke in the presence of a rabbi.
From my perch on the top step I see the holy man lifting his arms, trying to get everyone's attention. I run to my closet and see my black suit and my blue suit. I put on the blue and walk down into the growing crowd. My sister is on the other side of the dividing wall, surrounded by snoods. I wave to her through the openings in the screen, but she doesn't see me. Some of the women remain kind to me, in a surface way, and smile even though they know I'm never becoming one of them. The men are less understanding, especially those who tried to convert me at the compound in Maine. Like Avraham Neidelman, I see him right now. He said he wanted us to become "brothers" and bought me a gold-plated prayer book, which he inscribed. I forget what it said exactly but the words brothers, Talmud, and final redemption were all there, written in calligraphy. When I told him I'd talked to my father and had decided to stop going to Maine, he sent me a postcard with the grand rabbi's face on it. He wrote, "God does not watch over those who ignore the Torah. Call me." Now I'm standing here on the male side of the mechitzah with him, a dot of blue in a sea of beards and black. When my eyes meet his and others, they look away, signaling I've betrayed them. A man I've never seen before yells, "Shush, nu, nu!" and the room goes quiet quickly. I see my mother atop the stairs. We stare at each other for a moment and she descends as if entering a play. The holy man begins in a Yiddish accent, facing only the men.
"No matter how far an individual has distanced himself from God by his previous behavior, it is possible, always possible, for him to return, depending on his effort, all the way to great and meaningful closeness with his Creator. Rabbi Yochanan said, 'Great is teshuvah, repentance, for it causes a person's verdict to be torn up.' And Rabbi Yehudah said, 'One who has the opportunity to do the same sin and, this time, does not do it — he is a baal teshuva, a master of repentance.'
"Baruch Ata Adonai," he says, and all the men join in. "Elohenu Melech Ha-olam, Shehekianu V'Kimanu V'Higianu, Lizman Hazeh."
Through the squares of the mechitzah, I watch Becca place a brown wig on my mother's head. It sits high and boxy so she tugs at it, though it keeps popping up. My mother might be crying — she's covered her eyes with both hands — but I guess it's out of happiness. The holy man says two more prayers and it's official. The two of them are now BTs as they're called; baalai teshuva in Hebrew. Converts from nonobservant Jews to Hasids in just under three and a half years. When I get close to my mom I am unsure if I should kiss her in front of these people. She reaches to touch my shoulder but then presses her cheek against mine. I am surprised to feel her face. I put my arms around her and she pats my back.
"The happiest I've ever been," she says, and I try not to glance at the misshapen wig.
"Then I'm happy for you."
My sister walks up behind her. They squeeze each other and rock back and forth.
"I love you," my mother says, and now really begins to weep. "I love you. I love you."
In the back of my parents' wedding album is a picture of my father. He's sitting at a table marked 9 with an enormous bouquet of autumn flowers in the middle. There's a cigar in his hand and he's talking to my mother's brother, Don, a man who died before I was born. In my uncle's face I recognize my mother's eyes and nose and chin. It makes me sad for her. A sibling. To lose him so young. I see headlights out my window, a car pulling into the driveway. My father. I run downstairs. Debra and my mother are washing dishes.
"Guess who's here?" I say as he lets himself in through the laundry room door.
"Mazel tov!" he yells, and lifts a bag of wrapped gifts above his head. Debra plucks off her rubber gloves and walks to him.
"Get over here, little girl," he says, and lifts her before kissing her eye socket a thousand times.
"Enough!" my mother says, yanking Debra's nightgown back over her legs.
"I missed you," he says. "I missed my baby girl."
"Martin," my mother says.
"You didn't call."
"A wig?" he says. "You're wearing a wig?"
She touches it and looks at the floor.
"When did you get a —?"
"Don't what, Mick?"
"Don't be unkind."
He turns to me and blinks, working to form a smile. "Why would I do that? I'm crazy about you, aren't I?"
My mother looks at her husband, fifteen years her senior. He leans in to kiss her on the cheek.
"You should've called first."
"I knew today was the big one. I didn't want to bother you. It was today, right?"
My mother heads for the hallway. "They have school in the morning, Martin. Please don't stay too long."
"I don't want to drive back to the city now."
The sound comes from her nose. She shakes her head all the way to the stairs.
"Wait, Mick. I got you something, a gift."
"No, thank you."
"For the occasion, wait."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Peep Show"
Copyright © 2010 Joshua Braff.
Excerpted by permission of ALGONQUIN BOOKS OF CHAPEL HILL.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
PART I: SPRING 1975,
David | Martin | Brandi Lady | Verboten | Mickey | Apartment W | It's a Boy | Strap-a-Long | Kallah,
PART II: SUMMER 1975,
Uncle Bobo | Monday | Hojo's | Just for Fun | Atlantic City | Get Me Home | Adenomatous | Ya Fe Na Ne,
PART III: 1977, TWO YEARS LATER,
The Peep Show Express, July 1977 | Sarah | Your Child | Sheitelmacher | Lieberman and Wise | Oliver Twist | Debra,
David Arbus Photographs, 1975-1984,