CITY BOY
by Herman Wouk

(Doubleday, 1952)

Reviewed by Sue Feder

When first published in 1952, City Boy sank without a trace because, the publisher said, no novel with Jewish characters could sell. It was made into a movie which changed a Jewish boy from the Bronx to a thin Irish girl to a small Midwestern town. It, too, sank without a trace. Several years, a hit book (The Caine Mutiny), and a new publisher later, the book was reissued, and reissued, and translated, and lauded, and reissued. It’s not currently in print -- has not been so since about 1986 -- and poorer is the world for it.

Herbie Bookbinder is the boy, age eleven or thereabouts in 1929. He’s fat, awkward, socially inept, but very, very bright -- think nerd, think...Bill Gates, New York Jewish-style. Herbie’s story is told in the language of a child, but the voice of the adult looking back and over with affection, wistfulness, and belly laughs.

City Boy is the story of Herbie's summer, the girl he loves, and the boys he hates. Forced to spend the summer in a sleepaway camp in the Catskills, Herbie's athletically deficient, academically overachieving normal self is not exactly designed to fit in with team sports. He spends most of his time hiding, reading, and trying to figure out a way to see the young miss he has a desperate crush on, and who is in the nearby but forbidden girl's camp.

Wouk has no agenda here. Herbie is a pretty ordinary boy who happens into a mostly pretty ordinary summer camp, plus one or two rather more unusual adventures, but it is a story that Wouk simply and clearly relishes telling for the sheer joy of it -- which means that reading it is a sheer joy as well.

 

MARJORIE MORNINGSTAR
by Herman Wouk

(Doubleday, 1955)

Reviewed by Sue Feder

Herman Wouk would build on his simple formula of City Boy a couple of years later with the groundbreaking Marjorie Morningstar. Seventeen-year-old Marjorie Morgenstern may be considered part of a generation of young Jewish women known in less politically correct times as Jewish-American Princesses. The daughter of immigrants who sacrificed their own financial security to give her ‘the best,’ her mother says

        "She’s entitled to the best, isn’t she? The West Side is where the good families live. Here she has the best chances of meeting somebody worth while. We went all over that ground." ...

        "...Did she ever tell you the five arguments that prove God exists and five answers that prove he doesn’t? She learned them in a course. But she never goes to temple except to a dance, she’s forgotten any Hebrew she ever knew, and if she doesn’t eat bacon she eats shrimp cocktail, I’ll bet a hundred dollars on that."

        "This is America."

        "We’ve spoiled her. I’m worried about her, Rose. Her attitudes-- She doesn’t know what money is. A wild Indian couldn’t know less. I do some magic with a fountain pen and a checkbook and she has a dress or a coat or a riding habit--"

In three devastating sentences, Wouk sums up why:

At seventeen Rose Kupperbert had been a Yiddish-speaking immigrant girl toiling in a dirty Brooklyn sweatshop, dressed in real rags. As she watched her daughter burst into bloom on Central Park West, her own lonely miserable adolescence came back to her, and by contrast is seemed to her that Marjorie was living the life of a fairy-tale princess. She envied her, and admired her, and was a bit afraid of her, and drew deep vicarious delight from her growing vogue.

The New World is slowly picking its way beyond blatant antisemitism, and Jews who a short generation earlier had moved uptown to the Bronx are now headed south again, to the Upper West Side and even Upper East Side of Manhattan, and wasting no time turning their noses at those left behind:

[George] took her to an engagement party of one of his college friends. From the start, everything about the evening depressed Marjorie: the all too familiar Bronx apartment house, one of an unbroken line of gray houses along a dirty narrow street; the dark stairway to the fourth floor, with its memory-wakening smells of immigrant cooking and baby-breeding, of stale paint and fresh wet laundry; the cramped apartment blazing with electric bulbs, the cheap furniture, the paintings that were copies of copies, the worn best sellers on the shelves...; the loud voices, the barbarous pronunciation...; the singsong cadence which jarred on her the more because she was still trying to free her own speech of it...."

And indeed, anyone who grew up as an assimilated Jew in the 1950s (although the book is set primarily in the 1930s) will find major chunks of their life set out almost verbatim on these pages: from the Seder with entertainment provided by an out-of-control five-year-old and his doting mother, who would have sent Dr. Spock back for a major rewrite; two weddings: one at home, complete with a theremin player, and the other "Lowenstein Catering Company's number-one wedding, the best there was, the best money could buy -- sixty-five hundred dollars, tips included....rococo excess and all;" plus an extended and hilarious bar mitzvah scene that had my nearly seventy-year-old mother and my thirteen-year-old nephew equally hysterical when I read it aloud to them.

This is not, however, the story of the modern American Jew (or even the modern New York Jew), but rather the story of one very particular person in the pivotal years between girlhood and womanhood. Marjorie’s hopes, fears, and dreams are those of every girl; her battles with her parents, while perhaps differing in some specifics, are all-too-recognizable. The friends she makes and discards, the succession of men in her life as she pursues her dream (or is it a nightmare?), the loss of loved ones -- the broad outlines of Marjorie’s life are as fresh now as they must have appeared nearly fifty years ago. It is no wonder that women of my mother's generation fell in love with Marjorie Morningstar.