Prayers for the Living
By Alan Cheuse
Fig Tree Books, 2015
392 pages, $10.34
Reviewed by Emily Golden
Anyone who has ever been moved by the artistic creation of another person might acknowledge that art–true art–reaches beyond the commonplace. It transcends to a place that surpasses human explanation; a place that might be described as spiritual. In his preface of Prayers for the Living, Alan Cheuse reveals that he was inspired by the way the works of Chagall, Virginia Woolf, John Coltrane, and other artists hold within themselves something that is otherworldly; that the pieces themselves take grounded things such as words and human figures, music notes and sounds, and turn them into “something resembling prayer.” Cheuse then gives us our narrator in Minnie Bloch, an aging Jewish grandmother living in post-World War II America–New Jersey, to be exact. She, in her language and rhythm, is an homage to the women of Cheuse’s own childhood. And she is connected to the great inspiring artists mentioned earlier in that she has her very own gift–her storytelling, of course, is her art, her portal to something beyond herself and perhaps anything else of this earth.
Minnie Bloch is a mother. If you knew nothing else about her, that might be enough, except that adding that she also happens to be a grandmother helps us get a sense of where we meet her in her own timeline. Early on, Minnie shows us what comes with age–loss and pain, of course–but beyond that, a loss of judgment. She finds a way to look upon everyone in her stories, even those she doesn’t particularly like, with some level of kindness and compassion. She is honest about them, showing us their weaknesses, but forgives them–and, in the way she speaks, implores us to forgive them, too. Minnie herself seems to be omniscient; there are details of the story she could never know otherwise. She has seen it all, or has filled in the gaps in a way that at times almost resembles poetry.
Minnie’s family, the characters in Prayers for the Living, do not come across as the best of people; sometimes successful, occasionally wise, but all tragically broken in some way or another. These prayers suggested in the title, seem to be Minnie’s own, for all the broken little people in her world. She prays for them because she desperately wants things for them–happiness, peace, comfort. “What does it matter,” Minnie says towards the end of her story, “if the child you bear and the children he fathered, they can’t get together and live even for a few years in peace?” This eats away at Minnie–her happiness is contingent on the happiness of those she considers to be her children. Minnie recounts and exchange between herself and her husband, when they worry that Manny is facing imminent death. “I say, no, if he dies, I’ll die with him, and my Jacob says, no, no, that’s not the worst part, the worst part is that you’ll live.” The meaning of her very existence is forfeit if her cast of characters is not able to find their own small measure of peace.
Early on, Minnie reveals an incident from the past that directly influences the rest of the story; her husband, Jacob, is tragically killed in an accident right in front of their son Manny, then just a young boy. A family in a passing taxi–the Sporens–stops to offer their help, and from then on become an extended support system for Manny. Manny, who believes his father’s death is a punishment for choosing to work instead of attend services at the Temple, decides to become a Rabbi. He spends the rest of his childhood and young adulthood working toward this new goal, with support from the Sporens and, always, his mother. He marries the Sporens’ daughter, Maby, so nicknamed for her indecisive, sometimes intangible nature.
Manny spends years serving as Rabbi in their little town in New Jersey, all the while quietly dealing with his wife’s mental illness, his daughter’s rejection of him, and the weight of a not-so-secret affair with one of his congregants. With the almost concurrent deaths of Maby’s parents comes the return of her long-lost brother, and with it a business opportunity for Manny–the chance to take an active role in the family business. Eventually, Manny finds himself becoming more invested in the business, and feels less at home serving as a religious figurehead; he finally dives in, and moves the family to the City and away from their religious community completely. Minnie recounts this all to us, sometimes repeating certain aspects several times throughout the novel. The way Minnie tells her stories is reminiscent of traditional Jewish prayer, and this repetition is no accident or exception to that. It is important to note, conversely, that the farther Manny moves away from his faith, the more his life seems to spiral away from him. Manny’s life is stunted by his father’s death. He knows only that he needs to keep working, keep moving forward; he does not really understand how to deal with anything–or anyone–outside of that realm. For a time, he is a successful Rabbi, and later a successful businessman, but there are limits to what he is capable of. He does not seem able to show true compassion or understanding for any of the women living in his house–he is only able to contain problems at home, never truly solve them. Minnie paints us a picture of their life at home, and we see a crucible that must, inevitably, boil over.
As stated, all of Minnie’s children–for they all become her children, in some way–are broken. Most of them are not particularly good human beings. Maby and her brother share a dark and tormented past that has damaged them both beyond repair; Minnie’s granddaughter Sarah is never focused on anything more than her own father’s ruin; even the soft and creative Florette, Manny’s mistress, wears her pain on her arm–in the dark numbers tattooed there in what sometimes seems like another world or lifetime. They make mistakes, they break each other’s hearts, but the story is not really about that. This story is Minnie’s story. She shows us, in painting her children delicately and without harsh scrutiny or judgment–this is about her love. How you can love your children through it, no matter how much it hurts you. In one of the novel’s final pages she is able to tell Manny, with strength in her voice, that she is proud of him. That in itself is a remarkable feat. “It’s an old story, darling,” Minnie says, opening the book, and she is right. It’s one of the oldest stories in the book: the sweeping, expansive limits of a mother’s love.