Reviewed by John Coyne (Ethiopia 1962–64)
Over the weekend I read two family sagas: A Summons to Memphis by Peter Taylor, the late great southern writer from Tennessee, and Peter Lefcourt’s An American Family. The novels couldn’t have been more different. Taylor came out of that rich southern tradition of liquid prose, a fellow traveler of Faulkner, Caroline Gordon, Tennessee Williams, Katherine Anne Porter, William Styron, and many more, including our own Bob Shacochis (Eastern Caribbean 1975–76) and Kathleen Coskran (Ethiopia 1965–67).
Taylor’s novel was published in 1986 by Alfred A. Knopf. For some reason, and I don’t why, I happen to have an autographed first edition of this book. Like all Knopf books, it is a work of art, the Note on Type says it was set on the Linotype in Janson, “a recutting made direct from type cast from matrices long thought to have been made by the Dutchman Anton Janson, who was a practicing type founder in Leipzig during the years 1968–87.” Lefcourt’s novel is an ebook.
That is the first of many differences between these two novels. While Taylor’s narrative spins around the subtle exchanges and the genteel settings and situations of Memphis that smothers the charged emotional interior of his characters, Peter Lefcourt’s novelistic family is in your face. Both novels are quality work. These writers write prose that matter. What their books also show is that there are many ways to write a novel, as well as to publish one. Today we are lucky to have the advantages of the printed page as well as the digital screen.
Peter Lefcourt’s novel An American Family is short, funny, sad, and true to life. It is the story of all of us who lived through the last fifty years, from the assassination of JFK to 9/11.
This is not a Peace Corps novel. The agency is never mentioned, and world events beyond the circumstances of this family drama are seen from a distance, the background in the lives of this New York Long Island Jewish family. It is the story of one family confronting the sweeping cultural changes of those years: the Vietnam War, the sexual revolution, rock music, drugs, women’s liberation, gay rights, the list goes on and on.
The book, in many ways, is a family album, rendered in smart, taut prose with each chapter snapped off like twenty-two minute segments of a television series. I see this novel as a Sunday night prime time show, sort of an updated One Man’s Family with true grit, as this novel deals with real issues, real people, and the comedy in all of our common lives.
As Peter has written, and as I quoted a month or so ago on this site, “Though this is not an autobiographical novel, it is, in a larger sense, a “cultural autobiography” — specifically that of Jewish-Americans born in the 1940s. But I believe that our experiences are similar to that of all immigrants — Italian, Irish, Vietnamese, Iranian, etc. — as we all navigate the tide of our new culture — and that the story told here is one that many will relate to. As the French are fond of saying, ‘Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.’”
Peter’s years of successful writing scripts for television series, such as, Cagney and Lacey, for which he won an Emmy Award; Monte Carlo, and The Women of Windsor, and his string of successful comic novels: The Deal, The Dreyfus Affair, Di & I, Abbreviating Ernie, The Woody, Eleven Karens and The Manhattan Project have served him well, and you realize, even reading it on a Kindle, that you are dealing with a real pro here. There is much to learn and appreciate in this ebook.
You read An American Family and you think. “I want so-and-so to read this book” as so much of the story hits home. Certainly for me, as I once lived on Long Island! I also came from a large immigrant family (the youngest of six Irish kids!) And Peter and I share the same decades. He went to Togo with the Peace Corps in 1962; I went to Ethiopia as a PCV in the summer of that year.
The book will also impress anyone who has written, or attempted to write, a novel. An American Family shows how a real novelist handles a large cast of characters, scene shifts, and the passages of time on the written page. These tasks are not easily done.
But the real pleasure of the book are the human dramas of the half dozen characters who live out their lives in twenty chapters.
In many ways the book is a Novel Of Information. Like Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.” I kept thinking: did I live through all of this?
We meet the family first on Friday, November 22, 1963 at 1:25 p.m. EST. You know what happens next!
Lefcourt uses the clever device of yearly family gatherings to launch his stories of the individual family much in the same way that George Eliot used a Sunday church in Silas Marner to introduce his characters.
Here are the five Perl siblings, their parents, and the relatives. They crowd around the Thanksgiving turkey (a turkey that is always too drily cooked, a recurring family joke) and also they gather, if only culturally, at Passover, for another moment to spin the novel in a new direction. This goes on for some forty years.
Each holiday feast launches another episode and their story continued and lived out while history — our American history — happens. Mostly world events don’t involve the Perls, but they do change their lives as Peter weaves into his narrative the events of the day.
He also nails down this period with the use of brand names. For example, on the opening page, Nathan Perl, the patriarch, is sitting “at the aquamarine Formica bar of their kitchen in Garden City.” (You had to live there to know how ‘right on’ he is on that detail.) He is watching television, which he doesn’t approve of doing, not back in the early ’60s.
But “since he had bought the new 15-inch RCA color portable for the kitchen. . . .”
All of us of a certain age remember our first “color t.v.” When the family got it. Where it was placed in the home. And what we watched in amazing color. Who needed HD?
The brand names of the past, however, are not sign posts to the prose or so much information that they drown the narrative. No, the brand names are the right detail that captures that moment, and reminds us all where we were at that time while we read this all too true tale of one man’s family as they deal with the life experiences all of us dealt with wherever we were in America, from Kennedy’s death, to the War in Vietnam, to the bombing of the World Trade Center. We remember it all. And Peter Lefcourt in his wonderful novel has, in many ways, told our stories. We silently shake our heads as we recall how it once was.
The only question remaining is: how did we manage to survive?
John Coyne is the editor of www.peacecorpsworldwide.com. He has published 25 novels, works of non-fiction, guide books, and two anthologies of Peace Corps writings. His next book, to be published this summer, is entitled, How To Write a Novel in 100 Days (Or Less). It is a book, he says, that took him 213 days to write.