Despite the promise of his much-acclaimed fictional debut, Darke, Rick Geksowski fails to deliver in his second novel, writes Eileen Dunne.
Rick Gekoski is a peculiar genius, a non-fiction writer (Staying Up and Tolkien’s Gown ) an academic and rare book dealer, he wrote his first novel, Darke, at the age of 70. Published last year and critically acclaimed, Darke was shortlisted for the Authors’ Club Best First Novel Award.
So expectations were high for A Long Island Story and judging by some initial reviews, it hasn’t lived up to them. Not having read Darke I didn’t have any such expectations, and approached Gekowski's second novel with an open mind.
I didn’t know until I read the afterword that it was based on the author’s own childhood in 1950s America, during the McCarthy era. Gekoski uses a quote from McCarthy at the beginning of the book:
The reason why we find ourselves in a position of impotency is not because our only powerful potential enemy has sent men to invade our shores....but rather because of the traitorous actions of those who have been treated so well by this Nation ... the bright young men who are born with silver spoons in their mouths are the ones who have been most traitorous.... You get the picture, Reds under the bed and all that.
The novel begins well – the Grossman family, Ben, Addie, Jake and Becca are heading for Long Island to Addie’s parents - Addie and the kids for the Summer, paterfamilias Ben for just the weekend. He is looking forward to a few weeks on his own with ‘no needy noisy children, and no needy silent wife.’
But there’s more - Ben is a lawyer in Washington DC’s Department of Justice, and the atmosphere of paranoia around him is forcing him to quit and move his family, possibly to Long Island, to start again. It has been a long time coming, from his early days in DC hanging around the Washington Cooperative Bookshop where Ben could feel himself being watched as he leafed through a magazine.
Gekoski builds the atmosphere and draws his characters deftly, gradually revealing bits about them as the story progresses. Morrie and Perle are Addie’s parents, Jewish immigrants who made a life for themselves in Huntington, Long Island.
Morrie is a bit of a ‘shyster’ - if you’re not familiar with Jewish expressions, you need to keep Google close to hand here. Perle watches her husband drive away from their home and muses: ‘hers was not a marriage where she got in the back seat, she was lucky to get into the car at all!’
However, the narrative begins to stall at a certain point. Ben has the predictable affair, gets caught and Addie milks it for all it is worth. Maybe because the author was writing about his own family he felt constrained, although he insists the portrayals are fictional, that his Poppa was not a shyster and his father never had the affair described.
There’s no drama, Ben is never arrested, despite his fears in the hothouse that was McCarthy-era USA. The story peters out, ending with these euphemistic few words - it doesn’t matter does it? We’ll get there sometime.
All in all, a little disappointing.