It’s the summer of 1967. Norman Gould has just burned his draft card in a New York City demonstration, dropped out of rabbinical school and is headed back to Los Angeles.
Norman comes home expecting one thing and stumbles into another, “his life feeling like a kind of play with one unexpected tale after another,” Allan Appel writes in his perfectly titled new novel, “The Book of Norman” (Mandel Vilar Press).
Norman finds his younger brother Jon taken up with Mormonism and his recently widowed mother dating their shul’s fundraiser. Paulene has enlisted both sons to work as counselors in Camp Tikvah, the synagogue day camp whose name means hope, where they are joined by a pair of Israeli young women just discharged from the IDF after the Six-Day War. These soldiers may be angels.
The novel is the story of two brothers with very different outlooks on matters of life and death. Norman sees Jon as a zealot apostate-in-training and himself as a “defector from the faith who becomes its sudden and reluctant defender.” He finds the Book of Mormon hidden in the night table of their shared bedroom, where he feels he inhales not only the air in the room “but some of the leftover oxygen from childhood.” What matters to the brothers, as Appel tells The Jewish Week, “are spiritual issues, trying to get in touch with the untouchable, the unreachable, those who are gone.”
Appel, a novelist, poet, playwright and journalist, is also very funny, lightening up the subjects of faith and the afterlife with the closely observed foibles of family and L.A. adventures, including an unusual and urgent game of Mormon-Jewish basketball.
Their late father Paul was a Damon Runyan-esque gambler, always sharing some enthusiasm for a new horse or a ticket with just the right numbers, who died suddenly at the card table (“Irony is, he had a straight flush to the joker and would have won the hand”).
As a child, Norman would hide in the corner of their garage and watch his parents dancing gracefully, “following the linoleum dance footprints on the door.”
Paulene is a waitress at Canter’s Deli who comes home from work late and tired, and spreads her service to synagogue committees, sharing Danish and hospitality. Paul would say that he was the only one she didn’t serve. She is dedicated to her sons and, among other lessons, taught them to tip well. (Appel says that his own mother was not as efficient as Paulene and wouldn’t have made a good waitress, but the emotional connection he feels is there.)
Since they were young, the brothers were charged with keeping an eye on their close-to-100-year-old grandmother. They taught her all about the rules of baseball in Yiddish and she’d watch television with a bald green tennis ball in her apron pocket and a baseball glove nearby. Her daughter-in-law describes her as “being able to speak only in one language yet able to complain in a dozen.”
While Jon is depending on Norman, as “a man of faith,” to explain his new path to their mother, and Paulene is hoping that Norman will talk Jon out of conversion, Norman is drawn to cheeseburgers topped with avocado, bacon and a touch of pineapple. But no matter how many he eats, he still feels empty.
The story has some basis in Appel’s own life. His older brother converted to Mormonism in his early 20s, and not long ago asked for Allan’s endorsement of what the Mormons call proxy baptism for their father. Allan recalls his reaction as raw, wanting to leave their deceased father alone. In the novel, he tries to give expression to both Jewish and Mormon traditions.
“All these things that are unanswerable are fascinating,” he says. It takes you to the precipice of faith.”
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When Appel says the morning service, he likes to dwell on the Psalms. “Ninety percent of the liturgy is just jaw-dropping amazement, an expression of wonder at being alive.” For him, that amazement is the answer to the anxiety about death.
Appel was born in Chicago and grew up in L.A. He describes the late-1950s and ’60s as a time of resurgence in the Conservative movement. As a teen he studied at an early version of what is now the University of Judaism, then located on the second floor of a health club on Sunset Boulevard.
While an undergraduate at Columbia University, he was one of the first students recruited to the joint program with Jewish Theological Seminary. He loved everything he learned in those years, but didn’t learn much about the afterlife — he says that being alive is much more central to Judaism than life after death.
Appel, who has taught English in New York City public schools as well as colleges and has worked as a writer for nonprofit organizations, is now a reporter for the online New Haven Independent. He is the author of 14 books, including two collections of poetry, a biography, an anthology of humor and eight novels, including “High Holiday Sutra” and “The Rabbi of Casino Boulevard,” a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award. Among his plays are “Stealing Home,” about Moe Berg, and “Dear Heartsey,” based on the letters of colonial New Yorker, Abigail Franks.
What unites his literary work, he says, is the fact that he deals “with the collision of people from different backgrounds and different traditions. I’m interested in what happens when the collision occurs, and there’s a kind of humor and opening up and understanding.
“I’m gripped by the fact that we’re all so limited,” Appel continues. “I can never be anything other than myself. Yet we all have this urge to connect. How do you do that? How do you go beyond your tradition to see the world through someone else’s eyes? When you write, you can create characters and inhabit them.”
“I’m interested in pushing the limits of traditions and perceptions, operating on the margins.”