At first, a whole lot of nothing, and then… zetz!


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The Frumkiss Family Business

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 28/08/2010 (4660 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

The Frumkiss Family Business

By Michael Wex

Knopf Canada, 384 pages, $30

YANKEE Gallstone is dead. Long live Yankee Gallstone.

In the prologue of Toronto author Michael Wex’s absorbing comic novel, Gallstone, played by Jewish poet and playwright Elyokim Factor, is introduced as a beloved character on the ’50s children’s television program The New Curiosity Shop.

At show time, young fan Allan excitedly beckons his parents and points out Gallstone, who is a Yiddish-speaking dodo bird with a white fluff of hair and thick glasses. He tells his father, “Just like you!” but “Without the bad words when he’s mad.”

The novel proper begins in Toronto 2008, and Factor has just died. He was 103, but it was his exclusive diet — as documented on YouTube — of kugel, a traditional Jewish casserole, that did him in.

Despite his death, he is the main character in this novel. After all, he begat Tammy, who married Earl Frumkiss.

Tammy and Earl begat three children who began beautiful, and became miserable. This is their story, but to get to them we must first understand those who came before.

Factor was known as the Mazik — little devil — in his native Poland, because of his biting wit and joke-playing. It was his life mantra. “‘I want to be a yatesh,’ he wrote, the gnat that burrowed into Titus’s head to punish him for his mockery of God. It banged against his brain and didn’t give him a moment’s peace: its claws were made of iron, its beak of brass. ‘That’s me all over.'”

In postwar Canada, Factor exchanged his metaphorical beak for a prop to become Yankee Gallstone, but he was still banging brains. Many in the Yiddish-speaking world were offended by his TV persona’s lack of dignity.

Factor loved the notoriety. It appeared his only true vexation in life was the potential loss of Yiddish language and culture in society.

Wex shares his character’s devotion to Yiddish. The Frumkiss Family Business is his second novel (he has also published a novella) and sixth book. He has written three works of non-fiction dedicated to the preservation and celebration of all things Yiddish: Born to Kvetch, Just Say Nu and How to Be a Mentsh (and Not a Shmuck).

He may be comic by nature, as his lectures are often compared to standup routines. His comic delivery in this novel often begins with a punch, as when he describes Factor’s granddaughter’s “daily divorce” and the day his grandson “killed his first man, and began smoking again.”

For Factor’s grandchildren, this is a transformation story. Three children, embarrassed by their father, Earl — a podiatrist who stars in his own television ads — grow up with every benefit his healthy bank account allows them.

They attend the best private Jewish school, until sibling rivalry takes a horrendous turn, and the family comes apart. It is clear that it will take something big to bring them back together. That big thing turns out to be an explosive secret, one that Factor reveals through the process of his death.

His publicists liken Wex to Jewish literary icons Philip Roth and Mordecai Richler. Oh sure, there are similar themes, and Wex is as irreverent and humorous, but he has his own style, and it is — though somewhat hidden between lines of character misery — hopeful.

His ability to hold back story, like Factor holds back a punchline, and carry one thread, and then another all the way to just the right moment, is breathtaking.

It’s so subtle you don’t see what’s coming until, as with one of those damn magic-eye puzzles, all of a sudden something beautiful appears.

Winnipeg author Anita Daher is looking for a good recipe for kugel.

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