Review of P.F. Kluge's new novel A Call from Jersey

Patrick Chura is associate professor of English at the University of Akron and author of Vital Contact: Downclassing Journeys in American Literature from Melville to Richard Wright. His second book, Thoreau the Land Surveyor, is forthcoming in 2010. He recently returned to Lithuania as a Fulbright lecturer. Here he reviews P.F. Kluge’s new novel that is coming out this September.

call-from-jersey-140A Call from Jersey
by P. F. Kluge (Micronesia 1967-69)
Overlook Press
352 pages
September 2010

Reviewed by Patrick Chura (Lithuania 1992-94)

IN A CALL FROM JERSEY, P. F. Kluge isn’t out to write an epic or a blockbuster. He’s trying instead for a quiet, emotionally intelligent book about sentiments real to all of us.

The main characters in this thoughtful novel are Hans Greifinger, an aging German immigrant who came to the United States in 1928, and his Americanized son George Griffin, a baby boomer who is squandering his artistic potential as a writer of popular but vapid travel articles. It’s 1984, and both the widowed father and the restless, once-divorced younger man are ready to assess their life-choices along with their feelings about America and each other.

Kluge’s father and son are likable, complex, and sharply-drawn. Hans, who started with nothing as a greenhorn in New York, has achieved what passes for success — a comfortable if unpretentious life, a middle-class home with a garden in suburban New Jersey — but he wonders what it all adds up to. It’s not just the death of his wife that has left him feeling empty. He’s never been very close to his adult son and is uneasy about what will become of his house, a legacy he has literally built with his own hands. He wants his son to move in with him yet knows not to press too hard.

Though Hans’s son George is a minor celebrity with a penthouse apartment in New York, his American dream is also in question. Both he and his father see the inadequacy of his rootless life. As the twenty-year reunion of his high school class approaches, George is pressured to attend and, more urgently, to think about where things went wrong for him.  There’s a lot about travel in the novel — George has been everywhere and his high school buddies who’ve stayed in New Jersey are now eager to see the world — but one of Kluge’s points is that going places doesn’t necessarily mean getting anywhere in the spiritual sense. George’s peripatetic existence and mediocre writing, after all, are a means of avoiding life. Though we’re meant to believe he has worked things out by novel’s end, the solution he arrives at is really no more creative than his cliché-ridden travel writing.

Where the novel especially avoids the grandiose is in its treatment of the darker issues suggested by the life of Heinz, Greifinger’s long-lost younger brother and the family risk-taker, who arrived in New York three years before Hans, went back to Germany in time for Hitler’s war, then disappeared for decades. Heinz resurfaces in the novel, but we learn only a small part of the tragedy that happened to him during the war — not enough to alter the novel’s essentially soft, nostalgic tone. As Hans explains, his own memories are puppies and his brother’s are wolves. By sticking pretty much to the puppies, Kluge keeps the focus on the less sensational anxieties of everyday life.rise-of-david-levinsky

Creating suspense doesn’t seem to be Kluge’s intent either. He is more interested in giving his characters smart, funny, self-deprecating inner dialogue — about themselves, their disappointments, and to a considerable extent about the classic immigrant dilemma of double identity. This book is much closer to Abraham Cahan’s great 1917 novel The Rise of David Levinsky than to Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. Sinclair fixated on brutal detail; Cahan wrote with honesty about psychology and identity.

jungleThe book’s opening pages are especially enjoyable, offering a fresh, amusing take on the immigrant experience from a decades-later perspective, through eyes that were once innocent but now know exactly what it all meant. Eventually, Kluge touches on every decade from the ’20s to the ’80s, and Greifinger goes from following the riveting, politically charged boxing career of German heavyweight Max Schmeling to the banality of watching episodes of Wheel of Fortune. Some of Kluge’s best passages describe twentieth century cultural developments. One of the book’s insistent questions is whether America itself is partly to blame for the entropy affecting the characters.

From the author of eddie-and-the-cruisers-100Eddie and the Cruisers and a half-dozen other well-received novels, we expect vivid, sure-handed prose. A Call from Jersey doesn’t disappoint. Kluge captures his beloved New Jersey, showing us how this melting pot came to be and how it has changed. Kluge has said that his subject matter here isn’t sexy or chic, but that he hopes the work has a certain “magic.” Here is another way of putting it: what the novel lacks in action and suspense, it makes up for in charm and wisdom.

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