Tag Archives: Adam Mansbach

The End of the Jews

“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).

Damn.

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.

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Shackling Water

“Certain stuff you were supposed to do in private—fast, pray, woodshed—because to have cats know about it might sully the ritual’s purity, shade your motivations with self-consciousness.  All of a moment you might find yourself looking left then right before helping a blind man across the street, not to check for traffic but in hopes of being seen.” (15)

I read this line in Adam Mansbach’s Shackling Water and thought, “Damn.  In two sentences he nailed a sin we’re all guilty of sometimes, pinpointed the way we all know we’re guilty and try to avoid it, and underscored just how our own awareness of it is in itself self-conscious.  “Woodshedding,” in case you don’t know, is holing up with your instrument and playing, working it with the pure motivation of chasing the music down.  It has to be done in private, with absolute dedication, and it marks a true musician.  The minute it marks the musician, however, it becomes the property of observers.  I’m muddying this all up trying to explain the quote, which does such a crystalline job of explaining the phenomenon.

Reading Adam Mansbach as a writer is humbling.  His work is full of jump and energy.  Every word works, every sentence packs a punch.  He writes the way his main character, Latif, wants to play.

Do you remember that movie when Jack Nicholson tells Helen Hunt, “You make me want to be a better man”?  That’s what this book did to me as a writer.  It kicked me in the ass.  I’ve fallen into a rut, taking an easy formula that works for me.  My words and my sentences are lazy.  Shackling Water makes me want to be a better writer.  It’s moving and intense, to be sure, but Mansbach never takes the easy route to his readers’ emotions.  Latif is working hard, Mansbach is working hard, and it makes the reader want to work hard, too.

Perhaps the best part is the end, because it’s not definitive.  I’m so tired of endings that are neatly tied up.  Such a cop-out wouldn’t be worthy of this book.  I won’t say any more, because everything I say about the book will lessen the intensity of reading it for the first time.  I’ll stop now so you can go get the book.