Josh Henkin

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Kirkus Reviews (review date 15 February 1997)

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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)

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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...

(This entire section contains 333 words.)

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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)

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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 if's?" begin narrowing into thorny realities. He is contacted by his birth mother, who stuns him with the news that he was not born a Jew; his brother announces that he is gay; to the dismay of his Orthodox parents, Ben drifts from Judaism and falls in love with a shiksa.

It is to Mr. Henkin's credit that he juggles these multiple quandaries with grace, and that each of them neatly feeds Ben's overarching contemplation of his shifting sense of identity. It helps, too, that Mr. Henkin is such a deft and fluid writer. His clear, evocative prose allows small moments to build to surprisingly potent emotional payoffs. For example, when Ben meets his birth mother for the first time, they are unable to decide on a restaurant, and Mr. Henkin lets the details of their uncomfortable afternoon speak for themselves:

We walked up the street toward campus. We passed salad bars, taquerias, sandwich shops and pizza joints. We stopped in front of the restaurants and glanced at the menus, but at each place something else seemed slightly wrong. We were dancing around each other: You choose; no, you choose. We really must have looked as if we were on a first date, all elbows and knees as we walked up the street, unable to find the right distance between us, several times almost colliding with each other.

Mr. Henkin concludes this scene beautifully, with Ben forced to confront the one question he had not anticipated: "What could be worse than being bored by your own birth mother?"

Swimming Across the Hudson does have some fairly serious problems. The quietness of Mr. Henkin's prose can occasionally border on the anemic—this is a book that could have used a bit more passion, more sex, more mess. Mr. Henkin is also attracted to sentimental clichés ("There was something about airports that made me sad"), a trait that gives too many scenes a goopy, underdeveloped quality. Worse, he tacks on an ending, in which Ben rather wildly goes looking for his brother's birth mother, that seems forced and false.

Yet you finish Swimming Across the Hudson feeling grateful for Mr. Henkin's poise and seriousness of purpose—particularly in an era in which so many talented young writers arc content to play "Can You Top This?" with snide, hurdy-gurdy irony. Mr. Henkin's young narrator grew up abiding his parents' simple rule: "You love your family; you stand on the picket line for the rest of the world." His lesson, at the close of this admirable novel, is that family and politics can indeed be pried apart—but only at tremendous cost.

Laura Herman (review date 10 June 1997)

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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)

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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 different parents, have both been adopted by a scholarly Jewish couple in Manhattan who have raised them according to Jewish law. The brothers (who know nothing of their birth parents) have been bar mitzvahed; they enjoyed celebrating the Sabbath while growing up; they deeply love their adoptive parents; and then, not surprisingly, as young men they drift from their upbringing.

After the brothers move to San Francisco, Ben moves in with the non-Jewish Jenny and her daughter from a previous marriage and begins teaching high school history. Jonathan, who comes out as gay during college, establishes himself as a gerontologist and begins a happy life with his lover, Sandy. But when Ben receives a letter from his birth mother, his casual acceptance of his life begins unraveling.

Henkin describes Ben's meeting with his mother with humor and pathos. After an uncomfortable exchange about how long she is staying in town, Ben realizes that he wishes she would uproot her life for him, but then becomes panicked at the thought. "It would be like a first date. You had just met, and the girl was already saying she wanted you to meet her parents." But the meeting is less troubling than the fallout it causes in Ben's personal life. With his gentile roots exposed, Ben suddenly feels the need to assert his Judaism. When he nails up a mezuza next to the door of his and Jenny's apartment, Jenny tolerates it because of her curiosity about Ben's upbringing. She listens as Ben explains that the mezuza symbolizes the protection granted by God to a Jewish home, but then tartly reminds him: "Except this isn't a Jewish home. Only one of us is Jewish."

In many first American novels, questions of identity become the province solely of the family. But Swimming Across the Hudson does more than simply follow a young person into adulthood as he breaks from and then reconciles with his family. It is one of the book's clear but subtle ironies that Ben teaches history to teenagers. Even as he struggles to make the past relevant—read "personal"—to his self-absorbed students, Ben tries reconciling the two intersecting paths of his own past. By trying to make the distant past matter to his students, he is trying to pull them into adulthood, just as Henkin's novel, by tackling themes larger than Mom and Pop, pulls itself into a literary adulthood avoided by so many first American novels.

Because Swimming Across the Hudson examines the domestic world through the lens of the historical—Judaism is, if nothing else, a profoundly historical religion—Ben's routine family interactions after his discovery that his birth mother isn't Jewish begin to radiate a strange, discomfiting sense of displacement. Ben has a new identity now as both insider and alien, a kind of double agent in the Jewish and gentile worlds.

Ben is an understated and scrupulous narrator, with a winning combination of earnestness and decorum. It is a relief to find a novel by someone younger than 40 that doesn't opt for the soulless ironies of Postmodernism because it fears sentimentality. While the comic potential of a Jewish man meeting his ultra-shiksa mother might have seemed tempting to exploit, Henkin never plays for easy laughs. Instead, his subdued sense of humor permeates the novel, leavening the seriousness of his subject.

This light touch also proves a liability, however. Occasionally the narrative voice seems to skate over important information, perhaps because Henkin wanted to avoid stating the obvious. In fact, he leaves a number of matters unresolved, and the last one-third of the novel stumbles toward its conclusion. In his obsession to uncover the past. Ben poses as Jonathan and makes a secret trip to Chicago to meet his brother's biological mother. The ruse works too well. Thinking she is addressing Jonathan, the woman discloses a haunting piece of intelligence about "your brother," i.e., Ben. Yet surprisingly, Ben seems more concerned that Jonathan and Jenny will uncover his fakery than he is with examining the implications of his discovery.

One senses that by cracking open such a complex subject, Henkin had difficulty neatly resolving everything. The novel's compelling lyricism begins to stagger under the weight of the various traumas, real and potential, that appear toward the end. But Swimming Across the Hudson suggests Henkin has what we might call good literary capital: He has an inherently interesting story to tell, and ample resources with which to examine it.

Curt Schleier (review date 5 September 1997)

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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 with a B.A. in social studies, however, Henkin went to the San Francisco area, got a job reading fiction for a magazine and discovered how bad the majority of writers were. So bad, he says, that he was convinced he could do at least as well.

"I thought if so many people were willing to fail. I ought to be willing to fail," he recalls.

So he came to Ann Arbor in 1991 and enrolled at the University of Michigan in quest of a master's degree. He received his degree in June 1993, started writing that fall and a little more than a year later was offered a book contract for a "literary" (meaning serious) novel, Swimming Across the Hudson.

With an advance large enough to pay the rent for a while, Henkin was convinced he was on his way to living his dream. He'd go on tour with his book and wow the reading public. And live happily ever after.

Only it didn't exactly work out that way.

Instead, Henkin quickly got a bruising education in the realities of the book business, and eventually went public with his anger in the pages of the New York Times. What happened to Josh Henkin might be a cautionary tale for others dreaming of fame and fortune through writing.

"I didn't have any illusions ahout my book becoming a best seller," says Henkin. "Hardly any literary novels arc on bestseller lists."

Still, like every author, he thought Swimming Across the Hudson had potential to do well, and hoped Putnam, its publisher, "would send me on a pretty extensive book tour And I was hoping they would take out a few advertisements."

Surprise: Henkin soon discovered that publisher-sponsored promotional tours and ad campaigns are the domain of the Tom Clancys and Danielle Steels of the world.

But rather than accept the conventional wisdom—that it's unseemly for literary authors to dirty their hands in commerce—he decided to promote his book on his own.

He arranged and paid for a 34-city, six-week tour during which he gave bookstore readings for as many as 150 people (in Ann Arbor) and as few as three (in Dallas). He had to read over the sounds of a live jazz concert in one store and answer questions until he was ready to scream ("Do you have pets?").

In the process, he managed to sell a few books (Swimming went back for two additional printings) and learn the book business Catch-22: Publishers spend money promoting successful authors, yet it's almost impossible for a newcomer to become successful unless he or she is promoted.

"Publishers only promote writers who don't need the promotion," agrees author Joseph Heller, whose novel Catch-22 added the phrase to the English language. "I never did promotion for Catch-22," he recalls. "It was not a success (in hardcover). The first printing was only 7,500 copies."

Topsy-turvy business

Three decades ago, Jacqueline Suzanne set the publishing industry on its car by arranging a TV promotion tour for her book, Valley of the Dolls. Other authors have since chosen to do some publicity on their own. But Henkin's extensive self-promotion blitz may provide a case history for literary authors of the future.

"May" is the operative word because Henkin launched Swimming at a time when, analysts say, the publishing industry is trying to keep its head above water and figure out in what direction it should be going. Though sales are up, returns of books from stores also have increased. Recently, many books with large initial print orders (and hefty advances for authors) have fared poorly—including highly touted memoirs by Jay Leno and Brett Butler.

Publishers not only don't seem to know what the public wants, sometimes they're rot even sure what they want. HarperCollins recently canceled more than 100 books for which it had contracted.

Moreover, the venues where books are sold are fast changing, according to Publisher's Weekly, the industry trade publication. Independent bookstores around the country, the traditional refuge for literary novels, are closing, replaced by chain mega-stores where books are featured alongside designer coffee and croissants.

In turn, coffee bars and supermarkets are selling books, providing additional outlets for established, best-selling authors. But when was the last time anyone asked the butcher to suggest the latest in experimental fiction?

It was into this uncertainty that Josh Henkin brought out his book.

Henkin, 33, now teaches creative writing at U[niversity of] M[ichigan]—a natural career segue from his novel of two adopted brothers. In the story, one of the brothers, now grown, gets a letter from his birth mother that reveals a secret about his past. He willingly risks everything he has attained to search for where he came from.

One of the brothers is gay, both were raised Jewish, and it is a measure of Henkin's marketing orientation that, he admits, the marketing opportunities were not lost on him. "The Jewish and gay communities are disproportionate readers of literary fiction," he says.

The rights and wrongs

Henkin made all the right moves with Swimming. He found an agent in New York, Lisa Bankoff of ICM. She sent the unfinished manuscript to a number of publishers and brought Henkin to New York to meet with those who responded positively. Ultimately, the book was sold to Putnam. Henkin's $20,000 advance was far more than most first-time authors receive, though hardly a king's ransom. He finished the novel late last year, and it was published in April.

Henkin's editor was Faith Sale. While everyone seemed to like Swimming Across the Hudson, she says, no one got genuinely excited by it at Putnam—a common fate of serious fiction. "No one did hand stands," is the way Sale puts it. There was no book club sale, no paperback sale. That meant there was no money available to promote the book.

With energy if not enthusiasm, Henkin assumed the mantle of book promoter. "I worried that it would appear unseemly," he says. "I did my best to be as unassuming and as low-profile as possible."

He began contacting reviewers and bookstore owners from lists and by networking, starting out "with bookstores where I knew someone."

He made postcards that featured the book cover, and once a bookstore agreed to let him read, he'd send a card announcing the reading to everyone he knew in that town.

A Putnam publicity executive, Marilyn Ducksworth, says the company helped him set up his tour: "Josh didn't do this alone. We tried to set up local media appearances."

But Henkin denies that. "I set everything up," he says. "I called up every bookstore and set it up on my own. Once I set up my itinerary, my publicist made sure it went to the sales department so there would be books around. But Putnam didn't get involved in where I was going and when I was going."

All told, he spent about $7,000 out of his own pocket, including travel, faxes and phone, he says. The phone bills were the biggest expense. At one point, the phone company cut off his credit card, assuming the sudden volume in calls meant someone had stolen it.

Henkin's not sure how many books he sold through the readings, but direct sales was only part of his mission. "I hoped to get attention for (he book, for someone at the reading to recommend it to a friend. Especially at independent bookstores, you're really appealing to the people who work there, who do a lot of personal selling when people come in and ask for a recommendation."

Overall, though, the tour "was expensive and tiring and kept me from writing. I don't have any regrets I did it. I just regret having had to do it."

Books vs. TV

Henkin has become a semi-celebrity for his promotional efforts, if not his book. He wrote an op-ed page essay for the New York Times about his experiences and subsequently appeared on CNN to talk about them. Another Catch-22. "I did the tour to get attention for the book, but it's the tour I'm getting attention for. I'm not interested in being famous for a book tour."

Still, he says he was lucky, because he was single, had saved up some money and wasn't shy. "What this experience says to me is that you really have to be more than just a writer. You have to go out and shake a lot of trees and be self-reliant, and that's unfortunate because the best writers arc not always the best speakers."

Phyllis Grann, the president of Penguin-Putnam, says that despite what industry Cassandras predict, serious fiction like Henkin's book will always have a place at Putnam. "We believe in publishing that kind of book," she says.

But the idea, she adds, is to start with realistic expectations—say 10,000 copies—and then move a literary author up to the mid-teens for a second book, and perhaps 20,000 copies for a third. "I try to publish over the long haul," she says. "It's never easy to hit the jackpot the first time out."

That's "completely reasonable," Henkin replies. "I don't disagree with it. At the same time, I'm also aware that plenty of first novels (without promotion) don't sell at all, and come the second book and third book and you get a track record for not selling. In the old days, publishing houses would have patience. This is not about my frustration with Putnam. This is about reality."

It's a reality that author Heller touched upon. "Television shows that cover books are competing for ratings," he says, "and the only way they'll get those ratings is if they book guests the audiences already know, another Catch-22."

That's a sentiment echoed by Henkin's editor Sale. "Am I happy?" she asks rhetorically. "I don't like what's going on. Who do you blame? (Commercial books) are what people are buying, what they are going into bookstores and asking for. I don't think anyone is to blame. Publishers want to publish literary books. But we're up against people who want to read a blockbuster entertaining novel. I don't know what you can do to change that.

"People would rather sit in front of a TV than read. I know that's an ugly generalization, but that's what's driving publishing, movies and everything else."

Jonathan Kirsch (review date 28 May 1998)

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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 reflective moments: Who am I? Where do I come from? Where am I going?

"I saw myself in everyone," says the narrator of the novel, a young man with acute powers of observation but no real sense of himself, "and everyone in me."

The voice we hear in the pages of Henkin's novel belongs to Ben Suskind, and we meet him at a crucial moment in his young life—he is 30, living in San Francisco with his girlfriend and teaching high school in Berkeley. But Ben is haunted by questions about his origins and his destiny. He and his brother were adopted, and they used to entertain each other with the notion that their biological father was Sandy Koufax. Now the question has become urgent and compelling: Who were his birth parents, Ben wonders, and where are they now?

"It's like your life is out there in the future, but it's anyone's guess what that life is," says his girlfriend, Jenny. "Sometimes it's like you're watching yourself. It's as if you're not in your own body."

What drives Ben Suskind is a desperate need to define himself by reference to those around him, a task made more difficult by the unspoken secrets and subtle tensions of his upbringing by his adoptive parents. Both of his parents are Jewish, but his father is a believer and his mother is an agnostic.

All of his relationships strike us as attenuated or stressed—or both. Ben's brother, Jonathan, came out of the closet in his sophomore year at Yale, and Ben is still struggling to cope with his brother's sexuality. Jenny is the mother of an 11-year-old girl by a first marriage, and Ben finds himself courting both of them to win and keep their affection. The familiar credo of E. M. Forster—"Only connect"—is the real theme of Swimming Across the Hudson, except that Henkin shows us how hard it can be to make that connection.

The single most elusive connection is the one that Ben tries to make with his birth parents. Conveniently, if not quite plausibly, his birth mother shows up at precisely this moment in Ben's life, and she becomes the focus of his restless longing to define himself.

"You recognized me," Ben says to her when they first meet at a restaurant in San Francisco.

"Mother's intuition," says the woman who had given him up for adoption when she was 16 and now reclaims him.

It's a rare moment of irony in a book that is otherwise car-nest and straightforward. Of course, we learn that Ben is capable of deception and deceit, and his curiosity spins out of control when he starts looking for his brother's birth parents as well as his own.

But, more often, Swimming Across the Hudson presents itself as one young man's unflinching contemplation of himself, an effort to calculate his position by taking a fix on the stars in the heavens of his own intimate cosmos—mothers, fathers, a brother, a lover, and miscellaneous other friends and loved ones, all of them orbiting around him as if he were the center of the universe.