Marketing is in the saddle and rides mankind.
If you like this novel a lot, you'll be pleased to compare its farcical humor to Philip Roth's and its beleaguered protagonist to one of Saul Bellow's; if you're less impressed, maybe you'll call it derivative. If I'm not trying hard to convince you of anything, that's because after finishing Donald Friedman's book, with its implicit condemnation of America's hyperventilated consumer society and the values it propagates, I had a lot of negative thoughts about marketing - how nearly everywhere you look, someone is trying to sell you something or convince you of something, not necessarily for your own benefit. Marketing, to paraphrase Thoreau, is in the saddle and rides mankind.
"The Hand Before the Eye" tells the story of peripatetic divorce and personal-injury lawyer David Farbman. He's always on the make (in more ways than one), trapped in the rat race, calculating how to keep his creditors at bay until he can squeeze enough money out of a client to keep his creditors at bay a little longer. Meanwhile, his personal life is a shambles. He's an absentee father to his two children. Years of being ignored have turned wife Ann Marie, a convert from Waspdom, bitter and rejecting. Even the sexual chases for which Farbman sacrifices his domestic life come to nothing. A man living beyond his means in every way, Farbman remains vaguely aware that he's a Jew and that he was once a lawyer with ideals. But he can't stop running long enough to investigate that softer side of himself until a chance encounter with a Hasidic outreach rabbi makes him think about teshuvah, the possibility of reexamining his life and turning it around.
But even the hint that Rabbi Sholem provides of an alternative life and value system gets lost once Farbman returns to his weekday routine. Ann Marie's unexpected illness seems to startle him back into recognizing what is really important to him - but meanwhile he keeps pursuing an attractive opposing lawyer, in the hope of securing her courtroom cooperation. Farbman's confusion of goals ends badly: Ann Marie receives in the mail a packet of photos, taken on a day when she was lying in pain in a hospital bed, of Farbman apparently forcing his embrace on the lady lawyer, and though Farbman has been framed, nothing he says can bring Ann Marie back this time.
Soon many plagues crush Farbman, first his own ugly divorce and then betrayal by almost everyone he trusts, until, penniless, homeless and despairing, he interrupts a platitudinous panel discussion between the Dalai Lama and Rabbi Sholem to demand a real answer for his life. The rabbi gives him one, and with his last resources Farbman acts on it, dropping out of the culture of mad materialism to tune into his personal dream, becoming a farmer, centered, self-sufficient and finally able to love.
Admirable as this personal regeneration may be, however, it's impossible to swallow Farbman's glib crediting of his internal change to his loving forgiveness of the bad guys in his past. After all, Farbman was a real rat among the racers; he did measurable and immeasurable harm. Forgiving others in lordly isolation hardly qualifies someone as a master of repentance. Amends need to be made, counselor; others must forgive you.
Still, that theological flaw, though grave, is not likely to explain why this book - despite its humor, drama, deftly drawn minor characters, and timely theme of spiritual rebirth - found a home only at a tiny independent publisher. According to author Donald Friedman, himself a lawyer, his book, which won Mid-List Press's 1999 first-novel award, was first rejected by many major houses for just the reason it was perceived as "mid-list." This dirty word, meaning worthy but commercially problematic, is the kiss of death in an industry where final decisions about what to publish are made by marketing executives.
Friedman's publisher took its name as a gesture of commitment to just such "mid-list" books. The fact that The Hand Before the Eye, despite its prize, was not reviewed by The New York Times seems another indication of how tight a grip both commercial marketing and the quest for advertising revenues now have on our lives. Several less satisfying first books of Jewish fiction were hotly hyped by publishers and reviewers only recently - but they came from major houses.
As a Jewish book, "The Hand Before the Eye" could have parsed more closely the internal process of its hero's transition from the belly of American secular culture, with its emphasis on sex, freedom and consumption, to a spiritual Jewish life centered on inwardness and love of the created world. The novel's most interesting, though understated, perception may be that in America today, with the institutions of Jewish community increasingly boring, useless or just plain obnoxious to many Jews, happy Jewing such as Farbman finally adopts does not necessarily mandate connection to any organizational or communal structure. Farbman is on his own, getting his Jewish needs met as he can, and Rabbi Sholem, too, operates at least partly as a private, one-man show.
Though others may, I don't lament the vision of Jewish life as a network of freelancers finding services and connections as they need them. For Jewish life, too, has become distorted with marketeering. A leader of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, one of Jewry's most successful fundraising machines, a few years ago acknowledged his institution's use of "controlled hysteria" as a marketing technique, an attitude not much different, really, from that in an unsolicited marketing e-mail that advised me the other day to arouse "strong emotions, such as greed, envy, lust, fear" in order to "capture" customers.
In such a situation of unremitting abuse and manipulation by anonymous others for the sake of their bottom line disguised as one's own greatest good, merest self-protection may require one, like Farbman, to turn one's back on the marketeers altogether in favor of quiet research into what has personal meaning and value, in Judaism and out. That, I think, is the message of Friedman's novel, and to set a good example, I will eschew appeals to your greed and fear, abstain from implausible superlatives, resist claiming that the fate of your children, your health, the Jewish people and the global ecosystem are at stake, and simply recommend that you take a look at Donald Friedman's "The Hand Before the Eye."