By Zoe Heller
Harper, 335 pages, $25.99
A distracted, maybe downtrodden personality—part economic casualty, part Barnes & Noble shopper—could at first glance absolutely misconstrue Zoe Heller’s The Believers as an uplifting and/or self-help–related book. This is not the case. Though it has tiny stenciled religious and philosophical iconography bubbled onto its jacket (that very popular tattoo, the om symbol; several crosses; a sickle; the Star of David; horseshoes; hearts!)—beware, recovering Eat, Pray, Love readers looking for a new New Age nonfiction fix: The Believers is not it.
Ms. Heller, author of What Was She Thinking? Notes on a Scandal, the 2003 novel turned Cate Blanchett–Judi Dench film, weaves for her third novel a failing-at-faith story, a pre-Obama (Bush-hating) family drama, set in Greenwich Village. Her well-developed characters are often caustic and antagonistic, evoking little sympathy and much frustration. Still, Ms. Heller’s tremendous strength as a writer is everywhere in evidence: An energetic and evocative work of fiction, The Believers is a quick, intelligent read.
The catalyst for any and all awakening in the novel is Joel Litvinoff. We first encounter him eyeing his future wife, Audrey, at a summer party in London in 1962. They meet amid a heated discussion regarding Paul Robeson. We discover that Joel is an American traveling in England and Audrey is a tired Brit who sees direction in a life linked with his:
“The future was rushing up at her now. They would live together in an ‘apartment.’ In a skyscraper, perhaps. They would be comrades in the fight against injustice, sharing the action and passion of their time. They would go on marches and hold cocktail parties attended by all their Negro friends. …
“‘Take me,’ she said, quietly.”
THE STORY flashes-forward four decades to the Litvinoff’s Greenwich Village home on Perry Street in 2002. Joel is now a successful, socialist lawyer (and self proclaimed “antitheist”) who prides himself on being dubbed a “rent-a-radical” by the Post. He’s currently defending a suspected terrorist, Mohammed Hassani. Audrey is on board, his “right hand”—in bed she wears a “One Nation Under Surveillance” T-shirt.
The couple have grown children: Rosa, Karla and an adopted son, Lenny. As parents, the Litvinoffs lord it eccentrically over their children, a chaotic and depressive parental unit (reminiscent of The Royal Tenenbaums). The two daughters and Lenny—with his obvious heroin problem—show up on Perry Street often, thundering into their parent’s lives with a force matched only by the strength of Joel and Audrey’s candor.
But a finger’s length into the action, Joel has a stroke, and the Litvinoffs’ life is derailed. He collapses during Mohammed Hassani’s trial. For the rest of the book, he’s in a hospital bed, in a coma.
Without Joel, we see Audrey for the first time as a frightened 59-year-old bound by old, unconscious habits. With her acerbic wit, a bouncing joint in her hand, she reveals her icy, almost awful decision-making skills. She chides her children with cutting remarks. At one poignant, self-aware moment, she acknowledges that her “brash manner” used to serve “to disguise her crippling shyness.” But now, “her temper had ceased to be a beguiling party act that could be switched on and off at will … she hadn’t noticed the change at first. Like an old lady who persists in wearing the Jungle Red lipstick of her glory days.”
The narrative voice flows between Audrey’s perspective and that of her daughters. We follow Rosa’s screaming matches with her mother at the hospital, and sardonic, public interrogations of her current exploration of Orthodox Judaism. The other daughter, Karla, finds “something in the brutal candor of her mother’s sallies that pleas[es] her. Her mother was right: no one else would say such things to her.” There’s a flavor of masochism to Karla’s scenes of martyrdom: She’s on her knees, swabbing her mother’s floor, picking up trays, hanging her head.
Then there’s Lenny. We’re not privy to his point of view (a somewhat irksome lapse), but we do follow his plight: the privileged drug addict enabled by his mother. “Audrey was rather proud of her reckless devotion to her son,” Ms. Heller writes. “To hear Lenny attacked only excited her heroic sense of being for him, contra mundum.”
ALL FOUR of these characters wallow in self-hate. They dip toward annihilation, unconscious and argumentative. There are short hopeful periods—glimpses of awakening. Audrey’s spirit eventually cracks when she learns of an affair and a child fathered by Joel. She breaks down in tears, a rare moment of humility. Rosa quits her job at a nonprofit called GirlPower (which she hated); she plans to go to a yeshiva in Jerusalem. Karla has an affair with the owner of a newspaper stand, who distracts her from her miserable, loveless marriage. And Lenny gets sober (for the billionth time) in Pennsylvania, only to return to Perry Street “to be ‘there’ for his mother”: implying the inevitable reunion between Lenny and his old life.
Despite hopeful glimmers, the theme remains the same: Belief is a messy, beguiling, disgusting process, and self-awareness comes only after a slog through guilt, denial, shame, self-loathing, secrecy and emotional hangovers (with very few flashes of understanding and fulfillment to keep you going).
The Believers takes in the complete circumference of this theme, and offers no easy resolution. When I’d finished, there was a acid tinge in my mouth. I attribute this sour taste to the emotional connection I’d established with the characters, and to regret that at the end, all of them were still struggling, still lost, still looking.
Em Whitney is a reporter at The Observer. They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.