Young Mannish Bull

Michael Levitin, Disposable Man

Spuyten Duyvil, 196pp, $16.00, ISBN 9781947980754

reviewed by Stoddard Martin

In the 1950s and even as late as the fall of the Berlin Wall, it was common for American Jews to be reluctant to say where their families came from. To be asked about ancestral background could be inferred as suggesting that you were somehow ‘unAmerican’, to use the ugly McCarthy era term. If now ensconced in bourgeois comfort, many immigrant Jews had indeed been Marxists in youth. Names had been clipped or otherwise altered – Krumkotkin to Krumm as for the grandfather of the protagonist of this book. In the words of a helpful immigration official, ‘We don’t go running around this country with long names no one can pronounce, see?’

The subject of Michael Levitin’s first novel is not just the ‘disposability’ of man as declared by its title, but his displacement. The narrator, a young adult contemporary American Jew, is hanging out in Berlin. Why he is there is not wholly explained, but deficiency in motivation is one of the book's themes. He comes, we will learn, from a suburb in the San Francisco Bay Area. A crucial snapshot of that origin is of a sunny bike ride with his dyspeptic granddad, refugee from the tribulations of East Central Europe decades before. The granddad is well read in modern classics of German and Russian literature and something of a philosopher.

Life is ‘continuous’, he informs his grandson as they glide past the ‘mansions’ of Atherton and eucalyptus groves of Stanford. The object of the individual’s quest in this continuum is to find his proper ‘form’. What will his form be, the grandson is asked. The latter, having no ready answer, fills in the blank by saying he wants to write. ‘So write!’ grandfather exclaims. Thus, we presume, begins a progress towards a traditional young American writer’s expatriation, Berlin of now supplanting Paris of The Sun Also Rises and Gertrude Stein’s ‘Lost Generation’.

As in Hemingway’s iconic first novel, our protagonist begins in the metropolis by collecting a crowd; the crowd then takes an inebriate journey; finally the protagonist breaks off on his own, to discover himself ‘truly’. Like Hemingway’s, Levitin’s crowd is of fellow expats, male, somewhat rowdy, post-Beat. The journey in this instance is by bike along the Warta, glorious under a June sun. Intoxicants include ‘bifters’ rather than bota bags; no bulls are run, but there is a fair dose of Hemingwayesque young mannish bull. A constant refrain is that men have become ‘disposable’ in comparison to contemporary women. Gender, as later Hemingway possibly prefigures, has gone topsy-turvy, women calling the shots, guys reduced mostly to bag-toting tag-ons.

One of the crowd, nicknamed ‘The Kaiser’, does not leave Berlin on the trip with the others. He is working on a script - maybe a novel, maybe hybrid – that per the evidence will never get finished. He lives with a Spanish woman who has progressively become hyper-dedicated to her visual arts. Perhaps he will go to Spain with her, he muses; certainly he will not go back to the States. Nor is he likely to leave her for any of the plenteous German or other gals swarming ‘The Berg’ – Prenzelauerberg, hip Berlin’s mecca – whom he finds ‘dirty’. His description of casual sex with one of them may cause offence to some female readers.

Female readers, however, are not likely to be this short book’s audience. It is a young-man-comes-of-age novel tout court, and in many ways a promising one. The happy bike journey through western Poland has a touch of Mark Twain to it, even Whitman; the Jacks, London and Kerouac, come to mind too. Beyond them in the hinterground is the book’s second milieu and destination: the killing fields and hostile times in which the protagonist’s forbears suffered and from which the lucky fled. Prague, Vilna, Kovno and a less welcoming Berlin appear in interleaved chapters recounting the plight of grandmothers, aunts, great-grandparents and a lost uncle or two – victims either of the overt antisemitism of the Nazis or the veiled one of Stalinists.

There are scenes in a gulag in Yakutsk: a young woman working at 20° below zero in dense woods, lacking proper shoes, sleeping on slats, ever hungry. There are forced separations, expropriations, sexual predations and worse. All this is what the protagonist seeks to feel in return to landscapes now signally free of such horrors and either falsely picturesque, such as the rebuilt Old Town in Warsaw, or simply drab, such as the warehouses holding old KGB files outside of Vilna. Where is satori in all this, to use a Kerouac term. What does our ‘disposable man’ discover to render him mature, less displaced, more ‘formed’ as his grandfather counselled.

There is much poetic description of plains full of wheat and barley as we hurtle past further forests and rivers to a village of 700 souls where his Jewish family once thrived. The protagonist is led there by a kind Lithuanian lass, who helps him in other ways to imagine himself no longer a ‘disposable’ man. Yet his sojourn in ‘a world I had been thinking about, and had been ruled over, for as long as I could remember’ is cursory to the point of seeming hardly more than a spin on Google Maps; and his manhood-restoring encounter with his selfless eastern guide is felicitously like a one-night stand with the traditional western whore-with-a-heart-of-gold.

Drawn in yet repelled, our hero loses no time in hitchhiking down a freeway to a port and a ship – another displacement, but who knows to where? Is it back to The Berg with its easy lack of commitment or on to his Californian ’burb with its sunny-afternoon, cod-philosophical bike rides? Something has been learned in the course of his experience, and the return to origins may seem brave in comparison to a self-protective American Jewish reticence in earlier decades; yet has much truly changed? We are invited to think so. Such is the purpose of the fiction here conceived. Though not without its element of male fantasy, it is a nicely ingratiating, engagingly readable book.