“The best writers, to Tristan’s mind, make him feel stupid and oafish by doing what he cannot,” Adam Mansbach writes in The End of the Jews (114). That’s what Mansbach’s writing does to me. He did it with Shackling Water and now again with The End of the Jews.
Mansbach is a writer’s writer. His work is strong and vital, and his words are pulsing. He gets at the heart of any matter with sentences so sharpened and white hot they sizzle as they make their mark. Every time I read him, the envy I feel quickly turns on it’s toes and becomes determination to become a better writer. There’s just no space for vague and insipid emotions like jealousy in Mansbach’s work. His characters are far more precise than that.
Take for example this description from the perspective of a young Jewish-American writer attending a party filled with WASPs during World War II: “To be colorful is a common appetite among these Mayflower types. They are so accustomed to fitting in that now they seek to stand out, and thus they strive for a bit of coarseness, act the way they guess the lower classes might. The lower classes, meanwhile, are busy trying to behave as it they’d shared a stateroom with these schlemiels on the way over from merry old England” (101).
Mansbach gets the voice right every time his third-person, limited narrative shifts. He ages Tristan’s voice perfectly when the narrative skips forward five decades, from a young, breakthrough writer to the grandfather of a young, breakthrough writer.
And then there’s the detail. Never too much, but just the right amount of movement to set the scene. During one emotional confrontation, a young Nina bursts into a room, interrupting her long-lost father at lunch with his co-worker. Mansbach sets the scene in one line: “’Can I help you?’ he inquires. The woman takes another bite” (143). Somehow, and I don’t know how, we know from that bite that this woman is the lover that has taken the place of Nina’s mother. All it takes is a bite of the sandwich.
I get published on a regular basis. Most days, I consider myself a pretty good writer and don’t feel the need to compete with other writers. Mansbach makes me want to be better, not to be as good as he is (I can’t be), but because he clearly works his ass off, and so should I. A writer is only as good as her next project, after all.
As Mansbach writes of the writer: “Here he was at work again, struggling his ass off, and past success, recent or distant, had no bearing on the matter” (249). Indeed.