Isaac and His Devils

In her first novel, Low Tide (1985), Fernanda Eberstadt established herself as a talented young writer. Critics, however, suggested that her characters seemed to stagnate in their obsessions, while her baroque, highly allusive style impeded the narrative. In her second novel, Isaac and His Devils, it is clear that Eberstadt has profited from the reviews of her first work. In the first chapter, she establishes her newborn protagonist as a sympathetic character, with much to overcome but with an admirable mind and will. From that point on, the story proceeds at a steady pace. Although still complex, Eberstadt’s poetic and philosophical passages show evidence of careful pruning; they amplify the narrative, rather than halting it. As for the major characters, while they are as grotesque as those in Low Tide, they are more representative of the universal human condition than those in the earlier novel. If some of their habits are unique, their struggles against apathy and acquiescence are not. Therefore, the major characters in Isaac and His Devils compel a sympathy that those in Low Tide could not.

Late in the novel, the protagonist muses that even if God is absent from the world, the devils are still present. These devils attempt to defeat the human will, to overcome energy with apathy, to transform hope into despair, and if possible to drive their victims to madness. From the time of his birth, Isaac Hooker, the central character in this coming-of- age story, seems like easy prey for these demons. He has poor vision and is partially deaf. Soon it becomes clear that he will always be a large, clumsy, physically unattractive person with sloppy ways and irritating habits.

In Isaac, one is reminded of the eighteenth century man of letters Dr. Samuel Johnson, who had similar physical problems and unappealing habits along with intellectual gifts that were evident from his earliest years. This reaction is no accident, for Eberstadt was inspired to write Isaac’s story after she had read a biography of Johnson. Throughout his life, Johnson struggled against a paralyzing melancholy, which he defeated through his deep religious faith, as well as through some desperate measures such as working mathematical problems.

While his character is similar to that of Johnson, Isaac’s solutions are different, as is evident in the fourth and final section of the book, when he goes through his dark night of the soul. Having left Harvard, where he had been little more than a target of cruel jokes, in order to return to the only security he had known, the love of his mistress, Isaac has taken a menial job and settled for a life without challenges. When his father dies, Isaac seems to be shocked into an appraisal of his own situation, and he, too, dies a kind of death, retreating to his bed, even rejecting the attentions of his devoted mistress. Evidently Isaac must battle his demons totally alone. At the end of the book, the strong- willed Isaac has won, and with confidence in his own powers he leaves the small New Hampshire town of his birth for the larger battlefield of New York City.

Eberstadt’s vision of life as a struggle with apathy and despair is reiterated in the life story of Sam Hooker, Isaac’s father, which is related in snatches and flashbacks while Isaac’s own account is proceeding in chronological fashion.

In his own youth, Sam, too, had been intellectually curious and therefore unlike his schoolmates. Although he was not particularly interested in teaching or in a lifetime of disciplined research, Sam knew that he loved books and ideas above all else, and it was natural that he should drift into graduate school, intending to obtain a master’s degree and then a doctorate. Although a professor friend warned him about the dangers of husband-hunting women, Sam began to date a young, fun-loving girl, Mattie Doucette, on a casual basis. Part of Mattie’s appeal was the fact that she did not read or think, except about fun and money, and thus she was a diversion from Sam’s mental exertions. The professor’s dire predictions came true. Before long, Sam was trapped; worse, his wife despised his academic ambitions and used her pregnancy as an excuse to get him out of school and into a job. Sam became a high school teacher in Gilboa, New Hampshire.

Thus by the time Isaac is born, Sam is already defeated. Despised and bullied by his wife, deadened by his daily contacts with bored and backward students, he becomes so paralyzed by despair that he even stops reading. There is only one person who can inspire him; ironically, it is the very baby who was the cause of his departure from graduate school. Although he loathes teaching the ignorant boors at his high school, Sam finds his true vocation in presiding over the intellectual development of a child who is so exceptional. While Isaac’s other teachers, who feel threatened by him, consistently punish him for his very creativity, Sam patiently...

(The entire section is 2041 words.)