Other Voices Bookshelf

by C.W. Cannon

Appears in Other Voices #28

Review of Sharon Solwitz’s Blood and Milk

In “If You Step on a Crack,” the ninth story in Sharon Solwitz’s collection, Blood and Milk, a married woman with children tries to cope with the possibility that she may have cancer.  “Her childhood heroine had been Edith Cavell, the English nurse and member of the anti-German underground who, facing the firing squad, had refused a blindfold…But she didn’t want to be Edith Cavell.”  This sums up well the common theme of Solwitz’s collection, namely, the question of the adequacy of her characters’ store of courage and faith in times of crisis.  Solwitz is a character writer, and the crisis in each story is satisfying mainly insofar as it forces a psychological unfolding of character.

In the better stories, the reader witnesses characters learning things about themselves for the first time. This often suspenseful unfolding process is especially masterful in “Editing.” The story centers around a woman who has “transcended waitressing” to find employment as a documentary filmmaker.  The film will require editing, of course, and, as it turns out, so does she.  Pushed on by a therapist boyfriend who wants more commitment out of her, Mimi embarks on an attempt to rebuild some decimated memory about an earlier period in her life, when she learned about betrayal in a different kind of religious camp—in India with her first love and their guru.  Mimi has trouble with connective devices, words like “because, thus, then.”  As the fragments swell up out of her past, the present becomes more blurry.  The editing function of memory is seen as a painful destructive/constructive transformation where the remembered past threatens to eat the present.  As in almost every story in the collection, nagging questions loom about the protagonist’s responsibility for her past, and her unwillingness or inability to accept that responsibility.  As in many of the other stories, some form of paralysis is threatened as a consequence of such a shirking of accountability.

“Editing” also features Solwitz’ most common character persona.  This is a baby-boomer Jewish woman who flirted with or even immersed herself in eastern spirituality during young adulthood and has since often been in therapy.  This is not to say that Solwitz flops when taking on an utterly different kind of character.  “Obst VW,” for example, is a poignantly humorous look at a teenage boy’s relationships with his father and with his hilariously depicted uptown girlfriend—albeit with a tragic fast-forward that Solwitz’ ultimately tragic vision couldn’t resist.  But Solwitz is at her best when she avails herself of her apparently deep learning in not only Hindu-Buddhist but also Jewish theology.  This is what lifts her always finely crafted character-driven realism, with its faithfully drawn social milieu, well beyond the ordinary.  One of the best stories in Blood and Milk is “Small Talk.”  In many of the stories the point of view character for some reason cannot or will not trust her fellows enough to risk real communication with them.  In “Small Talk,” as the title suggests, an entire clan (the Steinmans) suffers from this weakness.  A theological overtone is suggested in part by a Passover scene presided over by the son Daniel—he’s the youngest, and therefore sings the four Kashehs, but, as an only child, he’s also the oldest, and is indeed doomed to die (of what is rumored to be AIDS).  But the main work of the story is to show how the absence of meaningful communication, the persistence of “Small Talk” in the face of big troubles, forces people to fill in the blanks with conjectures full of suppressed terrors.  As the narrator puts it, “We’re all swooning, drowning, all the cousins from coast to coast, choking on the goosedown of our terrified, imaginary lives.”

The masterpiece of Blood and Milk is “The Country of Herself,” a fascinating re-scripting of the near sacrifice of Isaac by his father Abraham.  In Solwitz’s story, too, the boy’s name is Isaac, but it is his mother Dvora who is put to the test.  They live in Baghdad with father Win, an American from Wisconsin who acts as a kind of straightman next to Dvora’s difficult Israeli-ness (he says of her, “She called herself a failed Israeli.  But she has one thing in common with every Israeli he’s ever met—she wears her personality on her hip like a six-gun”).  Clearly their location demands tact and, for Dvora, an uncommon degree of trust.  The story’s theological ramifications approach Talmudic resonance as Dvora finds herself atop an isolated ziggurat in the desert, near the birthplace of Abraham, alone with her son Isaac and an Arab whom she barely knows.  “And (she) knows it’s a test.  Of her faith and courage a test—that she will pass if she can place her son on the rock in front of (the Arab).”  This is a difficult call because it requires Dvora to meet two requirements that many of Solwitz’s characters fail to meet: she must transcend moral paralysis and act; and she must place trust in a stranger.

Solwitz really shines when she tackles serious moral issues with recourse to her refined moral intellect; she’s at her best not merely as a sensitive reader of human psychology but as a psychological moralist.  When it works, as it does so well in “The Country of Herself,” the positive didactic or polemical impact of the story is not unlike Flannery O’Connor’s.  The less brilliant stories in Blood and Milk are the ones where Solwitz settles for nuanced psychic portraits without the illustrative framework of a broader theological or political vision—these stories come across as competent depictions of a particular sector of the American middle class at a specific time, in a specific place.  They, too, are, of course, “award-winning fiction.”  But Solwitz is capable of much bigger fish, and these fish—the best stories in Blood and Milk—meet that elusive criterion of great fiction, that it take place not only in a clearly drawn social context, but in history, and in the cosmos, at the same time.