Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The Mighty Walzer / by Howard Jacobson

Young Oliver Walzer doesn't have much to recommend him, even less to recommend his family. Growing up Jewish in 1950's Manchester (UK), he's the butt of numerous jokes by his older sisters, the shame of his father who wants a more macho son (with "swagger") and the target (literally) of his peers, the "prefab boys", who peg him with rocks if he goes outside. Yet Oliver's never questioned that he's destined for great things. "Grandiosity was in the family," after all. As adolescence settles upon him, so does a penchant for the game of ping pong which he plays by himself each afternoon in mesmerizing fashion. Before long he's good enough to beat his parents then his neighbors, then the kids at the local Jewish Community Center, the Akiva club where his use of a hardbound book as a paddle is smirked at until he wins over some admirers with his skill. Walzer comes into his own by his mid-teen years, even entering into a few awkward relations with the opposite sex where it becomes apparent that, despite his prowess at table tennis, he's nothing so grandiose when it comes to love. Through it all, anecdotes of growing up in post war England, life in blue collar Manchester, living with his charismatic father and "reserved" mother are colorfully portrayed and generously detailed in equally poignant and ribald fashion.

Howard Jacobson, 2010 Booker Prizewinning writer of The Finkler Question, has been called England's version of Philip Roth, a commendation he's replied to by proclaiming that he's the "Jewish Jane Austen". Not just a fantastic comic novelist, he's also very outspoken politically as a "liberal Zionist", contributing weekly to the UK news publication The IndependentThe Mighty Walzer is the most autobiographical of his books--Jacobson was also a champion table tennis player as a teenager in Manchester--and though it may not be apparent upon a first reading (a lot of Yiddish and British slang can be a bit hindering) the satire and jovial tone of the book is enough to satisfy any reader already familiar with the work of Philip Roth, John Irving or even Saul Bellow. Either way, Jacobson's definitely not an author to miss out on and not someone who should be taken merely for his comically acerbic style. (FIC JACOBSON)

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