Monday, June 8, 2009
Bend in the Road by Jeanne Barrack
review by Mykola (Mick) Dementiuk
While reading Jeanne Barrack’s Bend in the Road I couldn’t help but be reminded of that Yiddish story teller Isaac Bashevis Singer, whose Yiddish tales of the pre-Holocaust Europe earned him the Noble Prize. One story especially comes to mind, "Yentl the Yeshiva Boy," in which the girl Yentl, wanting to learn the teachings of the rabbis, disguises herself as a young man and befriends the other young men in pursuing this course of study. Though the latent homosexual traits are obvious to any reader, Singer shies away from exploring the relationship any further…
Not so Jeanne Barrack in her two-part novella, Bend in the Road. In Part One In the Lion’s Den, she explores a relationship between an older male, Aryeh, and Dani, a very young man.
(A digression here but this raises the question of how old should a fictional character be to appear in a sexual novella, 14, 15, 16? --though we’re later told that Dani is about 19 while Aryeh is 30 years old-- yet these fabricated rules are set forth by frightened publishers too scared of challenging the status quo. They assume that all young people are saving their virginity until they hit the glorious legal age of 18. What idiotic rot! My first sexual encounter was at the age of 15 with a man in his 20s or 30s. I was lured into a Newark alley not with an offer of money or good times --none was offered and none expected-- but just a glance that I received and recognized to pursue (even though I threw up afterwards) but it was a look of one I had always been after all my early life (yet I’m sure he saw that halting look in me, too.)
In this same way Aryeh and Dani recognize and know each other, in that mysterious homosexual way: they instantly long for each other even though they are both men. Aryey and Dani are part of an acting troupe in Poland in about the 1880s. Aryeh plays the manly roles, regal and bold, while Dani acts out the wimpy feminine parts. Falling into each other's arms is good as acting parts on stage, but Aryeh is hounded by what he secretly yearns for from Dani, physical closeness without the pretense of acting or playing a role.
In the other novella, Part Two, From Stage to Stage, Yuval and Tsvi are as different from each other as night and day or Christian and Jew. Yuval runs the theater troupe while Tsvi is a lowly disfigured gardener in a home Yuval is visiting. Yuval convinces Tsvi to sing in his company, at least part time, as they prepare for a recital.
Yet each feels he is unworthy of sharing himself with another male. Aryeh goes out and gets a drunkard who demands a blow job from him only to get pummeled by him at the end. Tsvi has an affair with a male prostitute he ends up somehow insulting and is given the boot. For some reason each man feels he in unworthy of sexual pleasure or true physical love; in this they stand utterly alone, tormented by their sexuality, by their aloneness. No wonder there’s a feeling of lost about them, which will persist until they let another into their lives.
These two stories are exquisite, rewarding novellas but with the many uses of the Hebrew or Yiddish words I was forced to flip back and forth constantly for definitions until I began to read it without referring to the dictionary; a wealth of Jewish information to learn in the end. Just to experience what gay avec means (what gay person hasn’t heard that?) is well worth the cost of the book; I would highly recommend these two novellas. You’ll definitely learn something from this book about a long-lived culture that now seems so short-lived before anti-Semitism reared its ugly head once again …but until then at least it was gloriously lived!
Jeanne Barrack has shown us what indeed was a fascinating way of life and that underneath all the poverty and hatred was a powerful resilience, a force of love pushing its way upwards not to the sky but directly straight to God…