Len Jenkin, N Judah (Green Integer Books 2006)
1993 I walked into SoHo Rep in Tribeca; the set was elevated above the audience on all four sides of the theater. A man in a conductor’s hat flipped open a hatch on the west wall and welcomed us aboard. Characters popped in and out of the dark space: a thief lit by a glowing emerald; a man named Mr. Zendavesta reading apocrypha from the yellow pages. I vaguely recall talk of fish tanks filled with octopi and an oculist convention. This was Len Jenkin’s play, Dark Ride: a hybrid of film noir, haunted house ride and circus side-show. A few years later I had the opportunity to study with Jenkin as a grad student at NYU’s Dramatic Writing program. Jenkin is without doubt one of America’s most original and important dramatists. He understands that theater is smart fun, a mix of highbrow and lowbrow, Chaucer and Chandler, Fellini and Kurasawa, Li-Po and Milt Gross. Whether he is in dialogue with Chinese poetry, Shakespeare, Yiddish kibitzing or film noir, his work is always concerned with the language of the unsung, of proletarian America; the America of circuses, side shows and seedy hotels. Perhaps the title of one of his plays best sums up his oeuvre: Poor Folks Pleasure.
His recent novel (almost recent—it came out early 2006) N Judah (Green Integer), begins his next dark ride at the end of the N Judah streetcar line in San Francisco, and soon travels through the shimmering bayous, back alleys and storefront churches of pre-Katrina New Orleans. In N Judah Jessie Roussel travels to New Orleans after she learns of her estranged son Danny’s recent death. She travels there to attend his funeral, and to unravel the mystery that was his life in New Orleans. Tagging along is Benny Silver, who shows up at Jessie’s doorstep when he learns of Danny’s death. Benny is an old friend of Jessie’s (“not even a boyfriend”), from their Mission days, and with his life in tatters it seems like Benny is grasping at straws to fill the emptiness in a life of wrong turns and disappointments. And of course, because his wife has left him three months earlier and he loves Jessie.
After attending Danny’s funeral in New Orleans, Jessie and Benny attempt to unravel the conflicting clues that might explain the last years of Danny’s life. The journey is not pretty, and Jessie and Benny are often met with dead-ends, lies and violence. “In the old days …whenever we had heavy rain the corpses of this city, in their wooden coffins, would rise up out of the waterlogged ground,” explains Mr. E. Deuteronomy Clay. “ ...you could sometimes see your dead Grandpa floating along Saint Charles Avenue in his coffin, waving to the crowds.” One can’t but read N Judah with a wistful sense of loss—has all the local color that shaped the myth and uniqueness of New Orleans been washed away?
Jenkin is in love with the shaggy dog story—the story within a story within a story.
It is folk tradition of story telling, used in much early American drama, but also seen in work like Don Quixote. Like many of his plays, multiple threads of tales run throughout the novel, until they run their course. My favorite is that of the Wandering Jew, as told by Dr. Llewellyn Dove, who runs the Saint Bernard Leprosarium. Dr. Dove is also, not surprisingly, an expert on the history of the Wandering Jew. What makes Jenkin’s characters so engaging is not only their oddball names (Big Chief Philo T. Alphazeta; Lord Buncombe; Mr. E. Deuteronomy Clay) but their bizarre areas of expertise, which has the effect of creating an underbelly of self-made men and women, a university of home-grown native geniuses, not to mention frauds, phonies, shysters and snake-oil salesmen. It is the America that Jenkin has reveled in throughout his career. But it is not that of the cute outsider or the naÃ¯f with home-grown smarts. These characters are, like many Americans, plain people who’ve known hard luck and have made the best of their circumstances. It is their humanity that gives them color and depth, and the writing ranges from downright brutality to some touchingly humane moments.
GARY WINTER is a member of (soon to implode) 13P.