DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. In the new novel "The Netanyahus," the American writer Joshua Cohen offers a fictionalized version of a real-life visit to an American campus by the father of former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Our critic-at-large John Powers says the book, which is just out from New York Review Books, pulls off the neat trick of being a genuinely funny book about genuinely serious things.
JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: The current political environment may be nirvana for social media zealots. But for novelists, it's a sinkhole. Even as they hope to engage in today's hot public debates, they struggle to turn such engagement into fiction that doesn't preach to the choir or feels dated the moment it's published. These pitfalls are neatly avoided by Joshua Cohen's "The Netanyahus," which is subtitled "An Account Of A Minor And Ultimately Even Negligible Episode In The History Of A Very Famous Family." Riffing freely on a true story, this brilliant and hilarious new book takes a cozily familiar form, the campus novel, and turns it into a slyly oblique fable about history, identity and the conflicted heart of Jewishness, especially in America. The time is the very end of the so-called tranquillized '50s.
The narrator is historian Ruben Blum, the first and only Jewish member of the faculty at Corbin College in small town New York State. Brainy but fretful about his position, he must keep appeasing his smugly mediocre department chair Dr. Morse, a master of hearty, anti-Semitic microaggression who makes him play Santa at the Christmas party and suggests that Ruben likes talking about money. Because he's Jewish, Ruben gets drafted onto a hiring committee to assess the application of an exiled Israeli scholar named Benzion Netanyahu. A historian of the Inquisition who just happens to be the real-life father of Benjamin "Bibi" Netanyahu, the recently ousted prime minister of Israel. This assignment seems merely tiresome until the bumptious Netanyahu unexpectedly turns up at the Blum house accompanied by his equally brash wife and three kids. Suddenly, things start spinning out of control.
All of this is brought to crackling life by Cohen, a prodigiously gifted writer who earlier in his career offered so many free samples of his erudition and cleverness that his books wore me out. Here, he reins himself in a bit, and the result is a novel that can be read simply as a laugh-out-loud social comedy. Before the Netanyahus even arrive, Ruben and his wife, Edith, have already endured uproarious visits from their bossy parents - his, earthy immigrants from the Bronx; hers, higher-class Jews and superior. Ranging from arguments about college applications to first-rate toilet jokes, these scenes, as well as those with the Blums' nose-job-craving teenage daughter Judy, are perfectly turned. They hark back to such literary landmarks as Philip Roth's "Goodbye, Columbus," which, as it happens, came out just as the action in this book takes place. With Roth-like panache, Cohen uses what his title terms a negligible episode to grapple with the big story of the diaspora. He touches on everything from the history of Zionism to the class differences among American Jews to the possible effect of American pop culture on young Bibi Netanyahu. At one point, Ruben wonders if watching TV shows like "Gunsmoke" and "Bonanza" as a kid shaped Bibi's Wild West approach to governing Israel.
The novel hinges on the contrast between Ruben and Benzion, which Cohen pushes to extremes. Indeed, the book is something of a gleefully manic gloss on William Butler Yeats' famous line about how the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity. Growing up, Ruben rejected what he calls the, quote, "gaunt, shuffly rabbis" who force-fed him chronicles of Jewish suffering and loss. Like so many in that era, he embraces the American idea of progress. And in his desire to assimilate himself to its ways, he's exceedingly pliant, even docile. In contrast, Benzion is a charmless Zionist, a true believer so unbendingly hardcore that his colleagues back in Israel have written him off as a fanatic. Viewing Jewish history as the eternal struggle against inevitable oppression, he considers Ruben's dreams of assimilation and progress a delusion, a form of weakness. Not surprisingly, Ruben and Edith find him and his whole family embarrassing and, as she puts it, pushy.
When I first heard about this novel, I felt sure it would be sending up the family that produced such a controversial prime minister, and Cohen does have a blast with their ill-mannered excesses. It is too steeped in and too thoughtful about Jewishness merely to set up the Netanyahus as the butt of the joke. Their unruliness finds a counterweight in the Blum family's eagerness to be free of the Jews' tortured history. In their quest for the bland, thoughtless comforts of the '50s American dream, they're hoping to fit in, to shed their cultural identity. But, of course, they can't. Even in small-town Corbindale, N.Y., Benzion and his family invade their house with the very Jewishness they've been trying to ignore. You can try all you want to escape your roots, "The Netanyahus" suggests, but they still have a hold on you.
DAVIES: John Powers reviewed "The Netanyahus" by Joshua Cohen. Coming up - jazz critic Kevin Whitehead reviews the release of a 1969 Sarah Vaughan concert, which he says combines sensibilities of jazz, pop and classical music. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MATT WILSON'S BIG HAPPY FAMILY'S "NO OUTERWEAR") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.