Josh Henkin Essay - Critical Essays

Henkin, Josh


Josh Henkin Swimming Across the Hudson

Henkin is an American novelist.

Josh Henkin grew up in New York City. Although he always wanted to be a writer, he did not originally pursue a literary career. Henkin received a B.A. in social studies from Harvard in 1987 and then moved to San Francisco. He got a job reading fiction for a magazine which rekindled his desire to write. He then attended the University of Michigan where he received his master's degree in 1993, and set to work on his first novel, Swimming Across the Hudson (1997). After finding a literary agent, Henkin sold his novel to Putnam where he was disappointed in the publisher's promotion of his novel. He took it upon himself to set up an extensive book tour which brought him considerable attention.

Swimming Across the Hudson tells the story of Ben Suskind, one of two adopted sons of Jewish parents. Ben does not have a strong connection to his Jewish heritage and lives with his gentile girlfriend and her daughter. However, when his birth mother tracks him down and reveals that he was not born Jewish, Ben's world and his relationships are thrown into a tail spin. The novel traces Ben's journey toward self-discovery in his personal relationships and in his Jewish identity. Reaction to Swimming Across the Hudson has been mixed. While most reviewers praise the subject matter and what Dwight Garner calls Henkin's "poise and seriousness of purpose," some find Henkin's understated prose style lacking. Several commentators noted the disappointing ending. Charles Wasserburg asserted that "The novel's compelling lyricism begins to stagger under the weight of the various traumas, real and potential, that appear toward the end."


Kirkus Reviews (review date 15 February 1997)

SOURCE: A review of Swimming Across the Hudson, in Kirkus Reviews, February 15, 1997, p. 244.

[In the following review, the critic praises the subject matter of Henkin's Swimming Across the Hudson, but complains that the novel does not do the subject justice.]

Henkin gives an overly self-serious treatment to a potentially engrossing debut about an adopted son coming to terms with Jewish identity and the many varieties of family.

Narrator Ben Suskind and his younger brother Jonathan, both living in San Francisco, have long accepted the fact of their adoption, but that doesn't mean that relations with their Orthodox Jewish parents are smooth. Their father, old-fashioned and scholarly, has yet to accept Jonathan's homosexuality, while their mother clumsily leaves condoms on his bedside table when he visits. Meanwhile, both parents wish that 31-year-old Ben would move east and marry a nice Jewish girl instead of living with Jenny, a public defender and single mother. When Ben gets a letter from his birth mother, Susan, his parents are forced to tell him the truth: His birth parents were not, as he has always believed, Jewish—and Ben, until now an indifferent Jew, is shocked. Then Susan, escaping her troubled marriage and the pain left by another son's death, comes to California to establish a relationship with Ben. While the two don't immediately click, the experience moves Ben to reconsider his religious and familial identity. He attends synagogue for the first time in years and incorporates Jewish ritual into his life. This reinvigorated Judaism doesn't sit well with Jenny, however, who has problems of her own as she contemplates representing a rapist in court. With the future of their affair in doubt, Ben becomes preoccupied with family history. Curious about his brother's identity, he secretly travels to Chicago to impersonate Jonathan and seek out his brother's own birth mother—a desperate act that brings all of his relationships to a crisis.

Henkin sets up intriguing family dynamics, but the far too earnest tone and sketchy characterizations fail to bring Ben's dilemmas to life. A welcome message of tolerance and inclusiveness unfortunately finds only tepid expression here.

Publishers Weekly (review date 10 March 1997)

SOURCE: A review of Swimming Across the Hudson, in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 244, No. 10, March 10, 1997, pp. 50-51.

[In the following review, the critic complains that Henkin's Swimming Across the Hudson "proves only as poignant as a particularly absorbing episode of TV's 'The Real World.'"]

The trials of a small Jewish family whose adopted son re-acquaints himself with his birth mother provide the background for Henkin's debut[, Swimming Across the Hudson]. An understated novel of ideas, it poses in accessible form serious questions about the nature of identity—personal, sexual and, above all else, religious. Ben Suskind, 31, a countercultural high-school teacher, and his gay younger brother. Jonathan, who's a doctor, live in the Bay Area. They were both raised in Manhattan by adoptive parents—a stern Jewish professor at Columbia and his more relaxed wife. Dad has long been at pains to see that his boys don't dilute their heritage, an issue that becomes pressing when Susan Green, who's both Ben's plucky young birth mother and a gentile, meets up with Ben and gives his head a spin. Ben, already a little jittery, grows sufficiently absorbed in the history of his biological family to threaten his relationship with his live-in lawyer girlfriend and her daughter, as well as with his brother and his parents. A man stalled, unable to embrace the future until he has resolved the riddle of his past, Ben gradually comes to understand that he can be a legitimate Jew without recourse to the Old Testament. His parents' love has made him a member of the tribe; and religious observance, from kosher cuisine to Sabbath and synagogue, can remain points of refuge and serenity. Henkin has a refreshingly unpretentious style, but this mini-saga lacks punch. Ben's epiphany that "the past year had been nothing but a string of lies … my identity slippery and slithering," following a strange, 11th-hour cascade of deceptions intended to uncover Jonathan's birth mother, proves only as poignant as a particularly absorbing episode of TV's "The Real World."

Dwight Garner (review date 27 April 1997)

SOURCE: "Family Politics," in The New York Times, April 27, 1997, p. 17.

[In the following review, Garner calls Henkin's Swimming Across the Hudson an "admirable novel," despite its flaws.]

For generations of striving young intellectuals who have gazed longingly at Manhattan from the remove of New Jersey's suburbs, a novel titled Swimming Across the Hudson could be about only one thing: the chilly, Darwinian struggle to make it in the big city. It is one of the nice conceits of Joshua Henkin's wistful first novel that he flips that implied meaning neatly on its head.

Swimming Across the Hudson is about two adopted brothers, raised on the Upper West Side by politically radical Jewish parents, who cross the Hudson in the opposite direction and simply keep going—all the way to San Francisco. They need breathing space not just to escape from these slightly manic parents (who live for picket lines, The New York Review of Books and loathing Rudolph Giuliani) but to ponder the high heap of social issues that this subtle and complex novel raises, including extended inquiries into the nature of Judaism, of homosexuality and of family itself.

For Ben Suskind, the novel's 31-year-old narrator, and his brother, Jonathan, their adoption is the one salient fact of their lives. "When you're adopted, everything's contingent," Ben says. "All roads are mired with offshoots; you always see the path not taken. No wonder I studied philosophy in college, all those counterfactuals piled on each other. What if? What if? What if?" Once Ben moves to San Francisco, where he teaches high school, those scattered "what...

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Laura Herman (review date 10 June 1997)

SOURCE: "What People Are Reading: A Wave of Interest Greets Swimming Across the Hudson," Detroit News,, June 10, 1997.

[In the following review, Berman lauds the originality and compassion of Henkin's Swimming Across the Hudson.]

At 30, Ben Suskind, a high school teacher of history, is suddenly in the midst of a major identity crisis. His birth mother contacts him: She's left her husband, dropped into San Francisco—from Indiana—to sell her handmade earrings and wants to meet him.

This bare-bones situation, which might initially sound like a TV movie of the week, provides the framework for Swimming Across the Hudson, a first novel by Joshua Henkin that's winning praise for its complexity, gentle humor and sincerity.

For Ben, whose quiet unease about his origins has been an undercurrent in his life, his birth mother's unexpected appearance only raises more questions—about his relationship with his adopted brother, his parents, his Jewishness, his girlfriend Jenny. No aspect of his life seems certain.

If ambivalence and uncertainty are hardly unusual themes for a contemporary novel, Henkin and his narrator Ben manage them in ways that seem original. Even the title offers a humorous twist on the expected: Ben, adopted by an intellectual, politically activist Jewish couple, grows up in Manhattan, wistfully imagining himself escaping to a rawer, more sexually charged existence across the river in New Jersey, the homeland of Bruce Springsteen.

Henkin, who studied the craft of writing fiction as a graduate student at the University of Michigan, writes of familial relationships without cynicism or anger and with wry wisdom, love and compassion.

Charles Wasserburg (review date 22 June 1997)

SOURCE: "A Young Man Tries to Reconcile Present and Past," in Tribune Books, June 22, 1997, p. 3.

[Wasserburg teaches writing at Northwestern University and has published poems, essays, and reviews in various publications. In the following review, he discusses the implications of Henkin's light touch in Swimming Across the Hudson.]

"If a Jew forgets he is a Jew," writes Bernard Malamud, "a gentile will remind him." In the case of Ben Suskind, the narrator of Joshua Henkin's first novel, that gentile is his birth mother. Swimming Across the Hudson tells the story of Ben, his brother Jonathan, and Ben's girlfriend, Jenny. Ben and Jonathan, the products of...

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Curt Schleier (review date 5 September 1997)

SOURCE: "Publish and Perish: First-Time Author Stages His Own Book Tour After Publisher Ignores Him," Detroit News,, September 5, 1997.

[In the following review, Schleier discusses how Henkin had to do his own promotion for his novel Swimming Across the Hudson, because of the nature of today's publishing industry.]

From the time he was a youngster in New York City. Joshua Henkin knew he wanted to be a writer.

But he thought of writing, he says, like some kids want to be in the NBA or walk on the moon. It was a far-off fantasy rather than something to which he seriously aspired.

When he finished Harvard in 1987...

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Jonathan Kirsch (review date 28 May 1998)

SOURCE: "A Trip to Self-Discovery and Back to One's Roots," in Los Angeles Times, May 28, 1998, p. E6.

[In the following review, Kirsch lauds the lack of pretension in Henkin's novel of self-discovery, Swimming Across the Hudson.]

Dylan Thomas once poked fun at audacious young writers by characterizing the typical first novel as an account of pain, passion, wisdom and experience "catastrophically gained by the age of 19."

To the credit of debut novelist Joshua Henkin, however, no such pretensions are displayed in Swimming Across the Hudson. Rather, the author muses gently over the understated mysteries of life that occur to all of us in...

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