Monday, July 11, 2011

The Mighty Walzer

The Mighty Walzer is a coming-of-age novel served to American readers with a whole lot of backspin.  That is because Oliver Walzer, hero of Howard Jacobson’s The Mighty Walzer, did his growing up in 1950s Manchester, England – specifically in a part of Manchester predominately populated by Jewish families like his own. 

If shyness could kill, Oliver Walzer would never have reached puberty.  That he did reach puberty, although he did not do a whole lot with the opportunities inherent to that stage of life, and go on to have a fairly “normal” life almost seems like an accident now, even to Oliver.  The first accident was that he found a competition-grade Ping-Pong ball and brought it home with him one day.  The second, was his discovery, by banging that ball off a wall with his hardbound copy of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, that he was a Ping-Pong natural. 

Ping-Pong, and his father’s insistence that Oliver use his unusual skills to meet other players ( as a way of  forcing him out of the house for his own good), would be Oliver’s ticket to the rest of his life.  Suddenly, he was among like-minded people who came to accept him as one of their own; he had teammates; he learned to at least talk a good game about women, even though he seldom practiced his skills in that arena; and he had a goal: to become a world champion Ping-Pong player.  Well, that’s the good news, because I’m making Oliver’s transition to adulthood sound a whole lot easier than it was.

Author Howard Jacobson
The odds were against Oliver from the start.  Surrounded by a gaggle of sexually repressed aunts who loved to give him baths, it is little wonder that the little boy would himself be sexually confused.  Witness his habit of cutting headshots of his aunts and pasting them onto the bodies of women in the  risqué photos he spent hours visiting in the family’s one bathroom.  But grow into a man Oliver does, and Howard Jacobson makes it an interesting, if somewhat frustrating transition (even for the reader, who is likely to want to shake some common sense into Oliver, or other family members, on more than one occasion). 

That Jacobson often uses 1950s British slang and Yiddish references in the conversation between his characters might be off-putting to some, but this adds an authenticity to the conversations that would otherwise be missing – and it becomes easier and easier on the reader as he develops an “ear” for the unusual words and phrases.  Imagine Philip Roth “squared” and you will have the right first impression of The Mighty Walzer.

Rated at: 4.0

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

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