I just finished reading In the Land of the Living by Austin Ratner. It’s powerful novel, a tale of men – fathers, brothers, and sons wherein women play the supporting background roles. The story opens on three Hungarian brothers, Burt, Isidore, and Dennis, all of whom have a difficult relationship with their father, Ezer. And so a significant portion of the early chapters in the novel focus on the tension between father and sons and Isidore is distinguished as the story’s original protagonist.
Later, the novel follows Isidore through college and medical school and unfolds his romantic relationships and eventual marriage. His love for his sons is in the forefront in these chapters, while his angst for his father still bubbles to and breaks through the surface occasionally. Chapter nine showcases the notes Isidore keeps on his growing son’s toddler years and it’s beautiful to read.
Eventually the focus of the novel turns to Isidore’s sons, Leo and Maxwell, and the novel shifts to the continual impact Isidore has on Leo’s life, including his choices, his self-worth, his attitudes, and his aspirations. Leo takes over as the central character and It is here we are also granted a window into the relationship dynamic between Leo and Maxwell, which eventually becomes the focus of the novel in the final chapters as the brothers embark on a cross country road trip together from California.
As the first chapter opens with hyper-masculine and rather crude language that put me off, I was prepared to dismiss the book. I’m really glad I didn’t and that I kept reading. Overall, I was very moved by the story Ratner paints for readers with his words, which, while at times are harsh and crude, more often than not are poetic and emotionally rich. When Ratner describes a scene as remembered or lived by Isidore or Leo I really feel like I am right there with them. Here is a bit of dialogue from later in the novel that gets at the heart of the conflict between Leo and Maxwell and demonstrates Ratner’s word skill:
“I was drowning two years ago and you didn’t even know. How could you know? You’d drop everything and fly to China for one of your friends but I could be on fire and you wouldn’t even notice, much less do anything about it unless I said, ‘Hey, I’m on fire, could you help extinguish me, perhaps by using a bucket of water?’ and even then you’d just say you couldn’t make it and wouldn’t tell me why and the reason would be you were going to your friend’s nephew’s birthday party, something really important like that.”
Aside from the dialogue and the rich scenery, another thing I really liked about In the Land of the Living is the way Ratner fills in many of the details of Isidore’s (and then Leo’s) life with flashbacks. He does it seamlessly and it feels like a very intimate way to develop the characters. Instead of watching a scene unfold as a third party, we are re-living it with the protagonist as if it had happened to us and was our memory.
There are few problems with this novel, but they are difficult to ignore. However as most of the novel is so compelling, these problems don’t change my overall recommendation that you buy and read this book.
My first complaint is that characters suddenly vanish with no explanation. The last we read of Dennis, Isidore’s younger brother, is in Chapter 6 where we learn he has followed in his brother steps and is attending Harvard. But what about after that? Why isn’t he meeting his nephews when Leo and Maxwell are born? Why didn’t he attend Isidore’s wedding? Likewise, Burt is mentioned in Chapter 7 – he has crashed his car, broken his teeth, and come begging Isidore for money. And then….nothing. We only know that Ezer is still alive in Chapter 9 because Isidore references him in the present tense while promising his son he will be a better father than Ezer is. I understand that there are only so many pages in a novel and Ratner probably doesn’t want to overwhelm readers with too much detail but it was a distraction to enjoying the view of Isidore’s life as adult to wonder what happened to his brothers to explain their absence from the scenes.
My second (and final) complaint is that some of the text needs to be tightened up. If this was a movie script, there are several vignettes I’d recommend for the cutting floor. Occasionally Ratner just takes us off on a tangent and I’m left wondering what the heck did what I just read have to do with anything else in this story? A prime example is in Chapter 4 where we are given the (true?) story behind the creator of superman. Ok, but why? And there is a whole section of internal monologue from Leo as he’s finishing up medical school that is rambling and mildly incoherent that doesn’t seem to explain much of anything. I think that Ratner just likes to tell stories for the sake of telling stories because if there is some subtle tie-in to the continuing plot I can’t find it in those meandering tangents.
I’m looking forward to Ratner’s next novel and now I will shift my attention to reading a story about sisters and mothers titled The First Rule of Swimming by Courtney Angela Brkic. I didn’t deliberately plan this back to back reading with parallel themes of family and siblings but it’s rather nice that it’s worked out that way.