There is pleasure to be had in a work of fiction whose scope spans two generations. Characters are introduced or shown in flashbacks as children, and we see how they fulfill – or don’t – the expectations placed on them by their parents, or how traumas they experience later come to bear. In The Comedown (Henry Holt) – as in Homegoing, Yaa Gyasi’s recent epic of the African diaspora, or Amy Tan’s classic The Joy Luck Club – Rebekah Frumkin explores the ways in which choices made by parents echo through children and grandchildren for decades.
Frumkin’s debut novel opens with the suicide of Leland Bloom-Mittwoch Sr., the drug-addicted patriarch of a Cleveland-based Jewish family. With his death comes the tantalizing rumor of a briefcase “emptied completely of the money,” spurring his family – a wife, an ex-wife, a former mistress, and all of their children – to become entangled in search of the supposed missing bills.
As each character’s arc unfolds, ushered in and out of the spotlight by Frumkin’s intricately organized prose, we have the rare opportunity to see them both through their own eyes and through the eyes of other characters. The animosity between Leland’s first son, Leland Jr., and his son by his second wife, Lee, is justified or not, depending on the point of view. Relationships expand and contract, as they do between Leland Sr. and his “best friend” Reggie Marshall – which is also his drug dealer. The friendship is analyzed from Reggie’s point of view, too:
“Leland Sr. was like gristle in your teeth,” writes Frumkin, but he “was the kind of stupid that couldn’t take a hint, and he started to think he was Reggie’s best friend.”
Reggie and Leland Sr.’s families become more deeply intertwined when Reggie is shot. The imprinted memories of slavery in Reggie’s African-American family and memories of the Holocaust passed down to Leland Sr. by his Holocaust-survivor parents come to bear over and over as the two men’s wives and children feel the reverberations and face the consequences of these traumatic legacies.
Genius postponed or derailed by romantic entanglement with either a Marshall or a Bloom-Mittwoch is a recurring theme in The Comedown. Both Natasha, Reggie’s wife, and Maria, Lee’s sometime girlfriend, use their unlikely relationships to escape the pressure put on them by themselves and their parents. Natasha’s marriage to Reggie distracts from her promising career in comparative literature, and Maria uses Lee as an alternative to the PhD in philosophy she intends to complete at the age of 15.
The Comedown excels at playing characters outside of type. Bisexual bass player Diedre, Leland’s second wife, resembles few other literary Jewish characters, and although it feels a little too stereotypical to have an African-American drug dealer at the heart of the story, Reggie’s family is also populated with renowned artists, real estate agents, lawyers, and literary geniuses.
Despite the desperation shown by many of the characters, the drug use, and the unhappy couplings, Frumkin allows for the possibility of happiness as each character moves towards embracing his or he full identity. In an unexpected scene near the book’s end, Lee’s college friend Edward (known as Tarzan and later Tweety), gives himself permission to explore his attraction to Lee and his gender identity following their expulsion from college after a drug raid on their dorm rooms: “This person, this once-Tarzan, once-Tweety person, wanted to spend their life hanging suspended between the two poles.”
Maria also embraces her identity as the threads of the plot come together: “Was she using Lee’s un-Princeton person as the vehicle for her rebellion, attaching herself to him under the false assumption that low-income, drug-addicted white people weren’t the white people she hated – the white people like herself? … She knew this much: she was Maria Timpano, she was alive, she was who she was because of a brain disease, not in spite of it.”
In The Comedown, Rebekah Frumkin deftly navigates time, space, and love to bring together the characters in her gripping, entertaining, and satisfying first novel.
Courtney Naliboff lives, writes, teaches, and parents on North Haven, an island off the coast of Maine. She is a columnist for Working Waterfront, and writes about rural Jewish parenting for Kveller.com.
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