Novelist Carole Malkin is, among other accolades, the mother-in-law of writer/activist/entrepreneur Michelle Malkin. Recently, she has published two new novels: The Life and Art of Gary Geckleman and Paper Bridge. Both are coming-of-age stories, centered around teenaged Jewish boys struggling to come to terms with sex, family, religion and death in the postwar era. Both are thoughtful reflections on what manhood actually means.
In Geckleman, Malkin follows the development of a young boy being raised by his mother and grandmother in a Manhattan tenement. He idealizes his absent father, who has moved to Florida–a world away in climate and culture–and remarried. After discovering his father’s alcoholism, he finds new male role models, including his mother’s brother and her new boyfriend, both of whom nurture his interest in art, in which he finds his voice.
Paper Bridge is the story of a young juvenile delinquent, raised by a trust-fund hippie who is absorbed in her own liberation. After nearly killing a man in a home robbery, the boy is arrested–and offered a chance to serve his sentence at a yeshiva (religious seminary) in Israel rather than a youth correctional center. In religion, he finds the guidance he had lacked throughout his life, and the courage to face the truth of his family’s past.
In this era of postmodern literary criticism, obsessed with identity and authenticity, we are meant to take note of any differences between an author and his (or her) subjects. Such tortured analysis is wasted on Malkin’s novels: she seems to enter the mind of a teenage boy effortlessly. Her descriptions of the dark yearnings and desires of her main characters have a natural quality, as if these were remembered, not imagined, thoughts.
Malkin does flip back-and-forth in Paper Bridge from the boy’s perspective to that of his mother, and from the boy’s lost childhood in the hippie era of the early 1970s to the cold reckoning of young adulthood in the 1980s. Yet for the most part, these are simply the stories of young men, balanced not just between youth and adulthood but also between the immigrant experience and that of the comfortable, native-born Jewish American.
Both novels explore themes of assimilation and intermarriage with a non-judgmental eye. Religion is present in the background in Geckleman, and in sharp focus in Paper Bridge, but it is really the relationship between boys and men that is the subject of both. In both novels, Malkin’s protagonists learn to replace absent fathers with new mentors, to seek disciplines that provide the moral and life lessons a father might otherwise have given.
In that sense, both books are a reflection on the postwar Jewish experience writ large, when Jewish Americans were suddenly orphaned by the Holocaust, cut off–except in memory and culture–from the world from which they came. Malkin’s answer to that loss is not to prescribe one particular path forward, but instead to suggest a posture of openness–both to the outside world and to the gifts, innate and inherited, that we carry within.