Sunday, June 10, 2007

Save Me, Julie Kogon

Writing about his hometown of New Haven, Conn, novelist Allen Ruff invites the reader into a world that existed beyond the confines of Yale's protective ivy enclosures. His new book, Save Me, Julie Kogon, features a charming, yet bittersweet view into that scene, a glimpse at the underbelly of a Jewish urban scene that has all but disappeared.


"Whenever you think about the past and piece things together, the writing becomes therapeutic, even cathartic, says Ruff, at the reading of his book Sunday at Avol's bookstore.

The story itself is about a son, Davey Rabin, flying from his home in the Midwest to visit his childhood roots of New Haven. The occasion? The "ol' man," Harry Rabin, has gone stiff, and Davey must go to bury Harry.

Davey's own apprehension about seeing his family, and the ensuing mishigas (for Yiddish trans. click the link), is shown by instructions to his wife, Annie, to pretend it's all a movie.

He ponders about his own life: "Forty years old tomorrow, I got gray in my beard already and I gotta bury the old man. Happy Birthday!"

Ruff's Sunday reading at Avol's was of Chapter 7, "The Obit" where the reader comes into contact with intertwining, perhaps little known facets of the life of Harry and the family tension therein.

Davey and his brother, Howard, wonder why Harry's last words were "Save me, Julie," when they couldn't recall any particular Julie in Harry's life.

Davey bemoans the Rabbi overseeing the funeral as a shmuck. He writes Harry's obituary on the 80 MB hard drive computer, initially blaming the death on the "malpractice and professional incompetence on the part of the staff in the Intensitve Care Unit at Yale New Haven Hospital," rather than the old age and cigar habit.

Davey notes how he'll see his black sheep brother, Mickey, at the funeral, who will likely bring along his girlfriend to have a cat-fight with Mickey's wife.

The reader also learns of a long-lost sister, Alexandra, from an affair Harry had after fighting with mom. The sister does have Harry's shnoz. The brothers almost include their newly discovered sister in the obituary as "an illegitimate daughter named Alexandra from down state somewhere," right before Davey drives down and delivers the obit to the Journal Courier. They wonder if the Alexandra's mother is named Julie.

The realism of the story is that it's somewhat identifiable with everyone's family: the unknown parts of family history, the conflicted acceptance of annoying family members, and the feeling of being frozen in time during times of laughter and tears.

As Ruff notes, the tapestry of quirks and questions unravels further. With deft touch, and familiar dialogue, the reader is pressed to look for more.

Will a cat-fight between a mistress and a wife interrupt the funeral? Is Julie Kogon Alexandra's mother? What other secrets lie in the family after Davey escaped for the Midwest?

A sample of the novel follows as the story begins with Harry's hard-drinking, best friend and undertaker...

"1989...Louie Vellner just sat and stared at the body of his lifelong friend, barely recognizable without any clothes, lying there on the morticians's table. The aged undertaker figured it must have been well over an hour since they wheeled Harry in from the van, removed him from the zippered body bag, and slid him onto the slab. That made it more than two since they had gotten the call from Yale New Haven to come get his old crony. But Louie, dressed in a body length surgeon's gown, a surgical mask tucked under his chin, hadn't done a thing since he removed the hospital tubes from the corpse's nose and mouth and peeled the tape from his arms."

"He sat there and stared at the body as he sipped deeply from a glass of Johnny Walker, his long-time anesthetic of choice, and took a moment to pour another belt from the half-empty bottle resting nearby on the cart that he had wheeled within reach before sitting down. He realized that he was beginning to get as stiff as his old friend, knew he must get to work, but found it impossible to move. He felt as if he had suddenly lost all the skills and know-how that came with more than fifty years in the business. He reflected on how it had rarely troubled him before, after all he had seen, the thousands he had prepared. How it had suddenly become so very difficult, now that it had come time to bury so many of his old friends. And Harry was the most difficult to date. 'Time to get the hell out,' he thought."

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