Yitzhak Goldah has survived the camps and, as Jonathan Rabb’s Among the Living opens, is being welcomed by his only surviving relatives in Savannah, Georgia. Yitzhak has recovered physically, but he feels numb. He doesn’t care when his cousins suggest changing his name to Ike (to be less obviously Jewish) or working in their shoe shop. He doesn’t care much about the heat and humidity. He doesn’t even seem to care much when people ask him what “it” was like and how he survived. Among the Living has a meandering plot, but it is at its heart a story about a man rejoining the living, breathing world.
I found Among the Living much like a season of a TV show. There are connecting plot arcs to tie everything together, but the chapters tend to be episodic. In the chapters, for example, Yitzhak reluctantly goes to parties organized by his cousin Pearl or stocks the backroom at the Jesler’s shoe store. The larger plot arcs involve Abe Jesler’s poorly thought out attempt to cheat customs, the internecine conflict between Savannah’s Reform and more traditional Jews, and the sudden arrival of a woman who may or may not be his fiancée from Prague.
Among the Living has the problem of too many things stuffed into the plot. There were moments when the narrative would settle down to focus on Yitzhak’s reawakening passion for writing or his relationship with his new girlfriend. These didn’t last long enough for me, as the plot would suddenly whisk us away to show us what was happening with Abe and the other employees of the shoe store and their escalating fight with Irish dockworkers.
What interested me most about this book (and was the reason I asked for it from NetGalley) was the question of how Holocaust survivors might readjust to ordinary life. After living for years on the brink of death and terror, how does one learn to talk with people who are worried about social appearances or cope with postwar American abundance? Most of all, how does one live with the guilt of surviving when so many others died?
These questions are only briefly addressed in Among the Living. Yitzhak has little time for soul-searching when his cousins are aggressively pushing him to move on and become an assimilated American Jew. I shouldn’t blame a book for not being what I expected, but I can take issue with the tone of the book. Among the Living just didn’t work for me because it was trying to do so much. It was attempting to be contemplative literary fiction at the same time it was a thriller about Abe getting in over his head with violence people. The two plots never gelled enough for me to see how they were supposed to work together.
I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 4 October 2016.