Allan Appel’s ‘The Book of Norman’
The Book of Norman by Allan Appel (Mandel Vilar Press, 334 pp. $19.95)
The best example of playfulness in The The Book of Norman could be the title—which riffs off the hit Broadway musical The Book of Mormon, and snippets of language from the show are included to hilarious effect. But the book has a serious theme as well.
It is the tumultuous summer of 1967; students are burning their draft cards to protest the Vietnam War, and Norman Gould finds himself attracted to the resistance. He was about to be ordained at the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City, but instead has been kicked out for cutting classes and eating bacon cheeseburgers. But if he has left the seminary, the seminary has not left him. For example, when he thinks about burning his draft card, he tries to remember the appropriate Hebrew blessing for a burnt offering:
Like a shopper racing down the aisles of memory, I ransacked all the brachot, the long roster of brief Hebrew prayers that mark everything from rainbows to new babies, in order to locate an appropriate one to mark the red-letter moment in my life that was about to unfold: In short, what’s the blessing for offering your Selective Service ID to the fire?
Norman’s younger brother, Jon, calls from Los Angeles to tell him their father, Paul—a gambler and failed businessman—died of a heart attack while playing poker. Norman sells his Jewish library to pay for a flight home. This is when events turn serious: Jon, a first-class doper and former Hare Krishna, is drawn to the Mormon faith, which Norman regards as a dangerous and crazy cult.
Jon was first attracted to the Mormons because they play basketball and the community hosts great barbeques. He also loves them because they love him. Beyond that, Jon is seeking a spirituality that the Mormons seem to have in abundance.
For his part, Norman is ambivalent about his own ties to Judaism and “vowed not to read another Jewish book for the summer.” Still, he sets out to stop Jon from converting. The summer is filled with the brothers’ discussions of Mormon-Jewish relations, even as they both work as counselors at a Jewish camp.
Jon would like to enable his father to get into heaven; if he converts, Jon believes, the Mormon gospel would help him pray his father into heaven with a “proxy baptism.” Jon and Norman’s discussions become a fight for Paul’s soul. Because their arguments are unwinnable, the brothers agree to play a basketball game: If Jon wins, he will become a Mormon.
The plot tells the twists and turns in Jon and Norman’s lives—but the disposition of Paul’s soul is not revealed.
Appel is a seasoned novelist and playwright who no doubt knows the cardinal rule of fiction writing 101: Show don’t tell. Unfortunately, as Jon and Norman argue, Appel tells and tells and tells. The result is that his characters do not feel like genuine people able to change and grow.
Despite that, I enjoyed many of the fall-down-funny scenes in The Book of Norman. Debating the Mormon-Jewish relationship makes this a unique and worthwhile read.
Sanford Pinsker, Ph.D., a longtime book reviewer for Hadassah Magazine, died April 29 at the age of 76. A professor of literature at Franklin & Marshall College for 37 years, he was the author and editor of more than a dozen books, including studies of Philip Roth, Cynthia Ozick, Joseph Heller and J.D. Salinger.