Issue 56 |

rev. of The Rabbi in the Attic and Other Stories by Eileen Pollack


The stories in Eileen Pollack's first collection,
The Rabbi in the Attic, occupy the delicate knife edges of human emotion with such utter solidity and weight that this writer keeps rereading in hope of discovering how she does it. In one story a woman allows an air conditioner to fall seventeen stories and flatten a shopper. "The air conditioner was a flat grey speck near the curb. Beside it lay a bag of scattered groceries." Now, that is
weight. But at the story's close, the woman's ten-year-old son wanders into the room to discover her making love. There is a stunned pause. The lover, finally, asks the boy what he thinks of seeing his mother naked. The boy, Lemuel, goes to the same window from which the air conditioner fell and hoots out into the night, "I think she's perfect."

All of the stories sparkle with such surprises, these unexpected turnings that come not from a writer's clever hand but from the glorious inconsistencies of the soul. In "The Fifth Season," a fortyish woman who "works in chocolate" and cares for her senile mother decides that one of the hostages in a Middle East news story is named William and is, forever, hers. In another story, "The Vanity of Small Differences," a troubled teenaged boy sets fire to himself. It's ghastly, but lyrical: mournful rather than tragic, and somehow perversely human.

About half of these stories are from the point of view of teenaged girls, waifs but smart waifs; not conventionally pretty but still entering into affairs. But the older characters seem to be as much in pieces as the adolescents, and even the rabbi in the folklorish title story is -- like most teenagers -- determined to make everyone follow his will; that is, he would if he could figure out exactly what he had in mind. They're all adult children, and despite an occasional display of childish vanity, they are uncynical and free of studied irony.

In addition to the similarities of voice and character, Pollack's collection is bound together by an openness to the dark truths revealed in religious thought and ritual. Most of the characters are Jewish, but there are some Catholics and even an occasional Protestant, and for all of them their religion is a force, something that must be reckoned with. The people in this collection are afraid for their souls, and thank God for that.
The Rabbi in the Attic is a wonderful, memorable stab toward new territory and toward a quite unusual kind of narrative; Eileen Pollack succeeds brilliantly.

Christopher Tilghman