Do­mes­tic drama eclipses terror trauma

The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE -

AS THE topo­graph­i­cal star of Jill Ci­ment’s novel, Heroic Mea­sures, New York is in­deed a won­der­ful town — but a town in chaos and un­der threat. An aban­doned fuel truck is block­ing the main tun­nel, and the miss­ing driver may — or may not be — a bombtot­ing ter­ror­ist.

That’s the back­ground, me­dia-hyped story against which the mi­nor moral­ity tale of old­sters Ruth and Alex Cohen might have ended up some lesser writer’s shrug.

Ci­ment, how­ever, wit­tily places the Co­hens cen­tre stage: Ruth and Alex re­mind us that, even when the world quakes, what mat­ters most is of­ten the pro­foundly per­sonal — will their stricken dachshund die? Will the sale of their cher­ished but worn apart­ment make them overnight mil­lion­aires?

In a sin­gle, charged week­end, their hap­pi­ness turns on a sealed bid and a small-an­i­mal vet’s skill with the scalpel.

This is a novel of ex­quis­ite de­scrip­tive de­tail and a fond, mourn­ful hu­mour that, on our side of the pond, is al­most ex­clu­sive to Alan Ben­nett. It’s a novel of whistling hear­ing aids, In Memoriam cards for a dead Ir­ish set­ter, and cin­na­mon sticks bub­bling on the hob top to woo would-be house buy­ers. It’s a novel about what we trea­sure, what we will let go, and how hopes per­sist for a fu­ture, any fu­ture, how­ever short.

Alex and Ruth Cohen, 78 and 74, are cer­tainly ner­vous hosts on Open House Satur­day, show­ing off their fifth-storey, walk-up condo on the East side. The pro­jected sale profit strikes the Co­hens — a child­less pair of rad­i­cal reds — as eth­i­cally in­de­cent. But it’s also elat­ing — a newer home, com­plete with el­e­va­tor, swims en­tic­ingly into prospect. No more stairs! When Ruth, a child of the De­pres­sion, first heard the agent’s ask­ing price, she found “the word mil­lion­aire still held a mag­i­cal spell, Fred As­taire danc­ing in top hat and tails.”

Alex’s fa­ther, an im­mi­grant shoe sales­man, had him­self idolised mil­lion­aires “as he had once revered rab­bis in

Ci­ment: fond, mourn­ful hu­mour the old coun­try, as men close to God.”

Se­cretly, Alex views any im­mi­nent move as in­con­ve­nient. An artist, en­cum­bered by can­vasses, he is work­ing on an ex­tra­or­di­nary project… il­lu­mi­nat­ing (as a kind of me­dieval manu- script) the dossier of files that the FBI had kept on the Co­hens but re­turned (on re­quest) when de­clas­si­fied in the 1990s: “All their old friends, even those who had traded in their man­i­festos for the To­rah, had sent away for theirs”.

Mean­while, across a grid-locked city, old dachshund Dorothy lan­guishes in a ca­nine clinic paral­ysed by a rup­tured disc. Caged close by are a chi­huahua with car­diac ar­rest and a poo­dle pass­ing kid­ney stones.

Ci­ment en­dows Dorothy with an­thro­po­mor­phic charm so that she can clock her sur­round­ings as “a sky­scraper-size war­ren of ill­ness and emer­gen­cies.” Surgery could prove fa­tal but Dorothy must be given ev­ery chance. Money is no ob­ject, for a pet, it seems — though, for property, the drive is strong to press for 10,000 dol­lars more. Ten thou­sand dol­lars, af­ter all, is more than Alex earned in four years of com­bat, Ruth’s an­nual salary for many years.

You love the Co­hens for liv­ing, thus far, for prin­ci­ple and not for profit. You love them a lit­tle more for be­ing only hu­man in the end.

Madeleine Kings­ley is a free­lance writer

PHOTO: ARNOLD MESCHES

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