Gabriel Brownstein, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Apt. 3W (Norton 2002)
The opening story in Gabriel Brownstein’s nicely crafted collection is as brief and potent as a slap. Our narrator, Davey, recalls the day when an unhinged neighbor, Dr. Schlachter, launched his son Solly from the roof of their apartment building in a pair of makeshift wings. The modern-day Icarus glided over treetops, toward Riverside Park, and the look on his face "passed not from ecstasy to terror but from fear to exultation. He flapped his wings, and in one awful heave they popped— blew out from inward like a cheap umbrella." The twist is that Davey can’t have witnessed the scene— he was on the Cape for summer vacation when it happened. Yet he does remember it, with the indelible detail of a snapshot. Thus Brownstein stakes out his literary terrain of memory and imagination, life and literature— adjacent territories whose borders, if they exist at all in these stories, are very loosely patrolled.
Davey narrates five of the nine stories in this Brooklyn-based author’s debut. He’s a sensitive boy who likes girls and poetry, reluctantly partaking in his buddies’ reckless games, growing, over the course of the book, from a "spooky kid in my cousin’s hand-me-downs" to a literature teacher and freelance writer. A romantic, he tends to douse his memories in sepia: "Ask me about New York in the 1970s and I’ll remember it as a golden age, the city bankrupt and filthy but full of aspiration. Snowstorms and blackouts and strikes— garbage, transportation, teachers— all of this was ordinary, exciting and incomprehensible." The details of his life emerge in spurts and almost in passing, as his attention always wanders elsewhere. Intrigued by his quirky neighbors, he’s a benign voyeur, an amateur detective, an obsessive collector specializing in other people’s memories. Still, these stories are ultimately about Davey. After reading Conan Doyle’s series, it’s Sherlock Holmes we know best, not the objects of his investigations; after riding a train across the country, the most intimately familiar sight is not some mountain or sunset—it’s the window.
It’s no wonder that Davey’s neighbors pique his interest, since they happen to be characters from great literature, resuscitated, relocated, and hooked up with leases in the same Upper West Side apartment building. The delightful title, with its repetitive sing-song rhythm, double-whammy alliteration, and suggestion of mystery, was lifted from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story of the same name, about a man born old who ages in reverse. In Browstein’s version, Davey and his friends encounter him as a barefoot, absent-minded hipster with telltale old eyes and cracked teeth.
This habit of appropriation seems to be a trend— the past few years have given us The Hours, Lo’s Diary, and Insect Dreams: The Half-Life of Gregor Samsa. I can imagine an undergraduate class in contemporary fiction: a balding TA presides over a lively debate in section. A pretty Comp. Lit. major defends the trend: it’s the obvious next step in postmodernism, an explicit manifestation of influence, an acknowledgment that nothing is new. Didn’t T.S. Elliot say that mature poets steal? Across the table, an earnest sophomore begs to differ: the premise is at best lazy and unimaginative, at worst a parasitic gimmick. In this case, Brownstein’s appropriations strike me not as postmodernist trickery, but as an outgrowth of his nostalgia. Attached to the literature he loves, he wants to keep it alive, drag it into the present and resurrect it. The possibilities of such fertile premises and enchanting characters have not been exhausted, so he’s resourcefully exploiting them, almost out of curiosity to see what would happen if he transplanted them to late twentieth-century New York.
One of the strongest stories is "Wakefield, 7E," which purloins a character from Hawthorne. Zauberman, an ordinary husband with a secret streak of vanity, moves across the street to spy on his wife and daughter for a few days that, out of compulsive sadomasochism, stretch into decades. Going by the pseudonym of Wakefield, he has moved into the apartment across the hall from Davey’s family. Davey, fascinated by his new disguise-sporting, note-scribbling neighbor, becomes another link in the voyeurism chain, spying on this spy, which leads his attention to Shoshanna Zauberman, the lovely daughter, whose daily violin practice is now an unwitting performance for at least two audience members across the street.
Davey eventually makes the jump from voyeur to voyee, following Shoshanna to college in Ohio, and landing in her bed, "running my fingers across her shoulders, kissing the birthmark on the side of her face. She is telling me that her father left when she was ten, confessing her misery. She cries and I leave the window shade open out of sympathy for Wakefield, who stares in as if from the land of the dead." Here we have two subspecies of voyeurism: Wakefield is a narcissist, spying on his own absence; while Davey (his own arguable creepiness notwithstanding) is genuinely interested in other people, able to drop the binoculars and enter the land of the living.
The stories not told by Davey are narrated by guys who might as well be his cousins. All display Brownstein’s understated yet distinctive voice and storytelling skills. Several motifs snake through the book: questions of Jewish identity, the persistent presence of the past, themes of guilt and responsibility as manifest for middle-class Americans. In "A Penal Colony All His Own, 11E," Davey condemns himself for abandoning his unstable childhood friend; in "The Inventor of Love," three couples think about, and decide against, adopting a needy foster child. A standout is "The Speedboat," the tale of a lonely man’s strained relationship with his alcoholic neighbors. It’s utterly stripped of the sentimentality that often plagues the other stories, and in it, Brownstein expands his range.
You can hardly finish a sentence in this book without tripping over a literary reference, ranging from attributed quotes to oblique allusions, in addition to all the borrowed elements. In each of the Davey stories, Brownstein tucks in— Where’s-Waldo style— the name of the original author. Sometimes Davey mentions a book by the author, and we have to wonder how much of his investigations are imagined, imposed by whatever he’s reading at the time. The spirit of the literature infuses Davey’s life, and infuses Brownstein’s own work. He’s lugging all these stories out of dusty library corners— by reviving their material, but also, quite literally, by encouraging his readers to seek them out (in my case, successfully). At least in this way Brownstein has repaid his debt, turning his thefts into loans.
Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow is a freelance writer living in Boerum Hill.