Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Day the Rabbi Resigned

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of The Day the Rabbi Resigned (Fawcett, 1992).

I really, really hate to say it, but this book was damn difficult to finish. Actually, to be perfectly accurate, it was difficult to continue past around page 80, by which point Harry Kemelman had presented three of the most unrealistic, dated, braindead depictions of new marriages and burgeoning relationships of any book from its period. It felt an awful lot like Kemelman, who was in his early eighties when he wrote this one, hadn't been anywhere near any young couple in decades. The depictions of relationships presented here would have been a little aggravating in the 1950s, but in 1992, I was married and I never heard of anybody remotely like the newlyweds in this book.

As a parallel, consider a book that I keep using as a comparison point, the Rex Stout novel Too Many Cooks, which is dated, uncomfortably so, in its treatment of race in America. But that is a book from the late 1930s; it might make us uncomfortable to read that seventy-odd years ago, attitudes towards race were often repugnant, and that otherwise intelligent (white) detectives would be fooled by shoepolish blackface, but it was honest at the time. Had the same novel been written years later, it would have been utterly out of place and wrongheaded. So here, Kemelman presents a marriage which falls apart almost instantly because the husband actually wants to have sex. It's followed up by a relationship where a woman who enjoys sex is depicted as a malevolent harpy who cannot be trusted, and a relationship which is condemned by parents because it is "serious" without an engagement. This book was written when Bill Clinton, not Eisenhower, was winning primaries.

Readers who can suffer through the antediluvian attitudes of the book might find some pretty good stuff after it. Like the rest of the series, it's a Father Dowling / Murder, She Wrote cozy of a puzzle with no aspirations to anything other than a simple intellectual challenge. This time out, Rabbi David Small is getting ready to retire after 25 years and hopes to find a position on the faculty of an area university. The temple's board of directors, as ever, doesn't understand the rabbi's simple wishes, and one of the area universities that Rabbi Small is considering is having a problem with professors looking to find tenure at whatever cost.

As with most of the Kemelman novels, the actual construction is a treat; watching the author tie several apparently unrelated groups together into one story is fascinating and surprising. The temple and university and police politics are amusing, and the rabbi's humility in the face of people who want to give him unnecessary rewards results in a really funny meeting, so it's not completely awful. There's a murder somewhere in the middle of all this, but it's not very important. The book doesn't even feature the hallmark beats of Small breaking apart the problem and finding the killer by means of Talmudic arguments and reasoning. Even absent the dated look at sex in 1990s America, this would be one of the lesser books in the series. Not recommended.


Bruce said...

I've tried to give this series a shot. But as you stated its so dated its not even funny. Then being hit over the head with things I learned growing up in a Jewish home became unbearable. I did my time in Sunday School I know all this stuff your force feading the readers. I'm just trully amazed that the whole series is still in print and sells. To whom is my question.

G.G. said...

I don't think it sells to many people under forty.

Actually, while the earlier books in the series feel dated from our perspective, this was the first one that I read that felt like it was dated on arrival. If I had tried to read this in 1992, I would have given up.