Leslie Epstein, Director, Boston University Creative Writing Program

July 7th, 2009 by admin


It’s getting close to midnight and I just finished your novel. I figure you are in Costa Rica, but will get this when you return.

Let me say at once it is the most emotionally daring novel I know. It dances out where no one else is willing to go. And it is very moving to see your characters out there, taking such enormous risks–and all the time knowing that YOU are the one taking them. I thought of Holden Caufield saying that after reading Out of Africa he wanted to call Isaac Dinneson and complete the connection. Well, your readers should be lining up to call you: and what a special treat to already know you and have you for a friend. I’m thinking particularly here of the death of Bill, the Doc. What an absolutely remarkable scene. Again, you dare to let the tears fall–and they mean so much more coming from essentially tearless people, people living behind a damn they pray will never crack.

This novel (like all art) shakes the ground and makes the cracks appear. (variation on Kafka’s art is the ax we use against the frozen sea within us). Anyway, your remarks about connectedness did two things for me. It reminded me of Jay Neugeboren’s remarkable review in NY Review of Books about six weeks ago, a book by a woman who was ONLY helped by the talking cure, after decades of drugs. Jay has a brother who was helped in the same way. Jay’s conclusion is that what matters is not the insight or the talk but simply THE CONNECTEDNESS, the sense that another human being is in the same room, and cares. After Jay’s review and your novel, I had the same impulse: to call my own brother. And in both cases I did (luckily he wasn’t home).

–I’ll tell you this: if he hadn’t gotten off that train on the last page (and I was already rationalizing things, saying, well, we can’t be sentimental, we have to be realistic, and all that stuff–but basically Iwanted to kill him and his author) we’d have had our last calimari together. Go back to that Italian gold digger? The phony of all time? If I’d been wearing a hat tonight I’d have thrown it in the air; I’d already shouted Hooray! And with what dignity does the retreating, huddled family turn around, stand up, and then run to him.

All the relationships are excellent (though I am not sure I understand why Miranda goes away–neither is she, I see at the end; nor did I know why Orville gets on the train–and again, we see, neither does he) my favorite in a way was Henry-Orvy. Henry is a great portrait. I’m such a Christian, at heart, that I wanted to believe in his wish for forgiveness and redemption. You MASTERFULLY kept me wishing and doubting until the very end, and then never fully exploited either forgiveness or punishment: he ended up a rich portrait of an appalling and yet all too human being.

He, like so much else in the book, is a wonderful achievement

Congratulations, Shemie. I hope people are emotionally open to the challenge that The Spirit of the Place presents them.

–Leslie Epstein, Director, Boston University Creative Writing Program, author of KING OF THE JEWS and SAN REMO DRIVE.

Comments are closed.