Mark Harris Roderick Nordell - Essay

Roderick Nordell

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The title character of "The Goy" is a Christian cast among Jews. He takes a Jewish wife and a Jewish mistress. His scholarly, professional life depends on the favor of Jews—in a New York faculty, in a Washington population study, at the hinterland "Center" where he arrives at the beginning of the book, hoping for a place to finish his life's work.

But even here, ironically close to the Gentile roots of his boyhood hometown, he is a kind of exile. And he is haunted by the thought that he may have been guilty of anti-Semitism in an almost Biblical act of violence against his own son.

This character, Westrum, becomes not only recognizable, in the sense of those non-Jews drawn toward Jews, but almost mythical in a classic reversal of the role of the Jew trying to make the grade in a world that subtly and overtly exiles him.

Yet all this, done with fine personal and institutional detail, is only one level, and not the most provocative one, supplied by Mr. Harris. For Westrum, whatever his relationship to Jews, is caught in a uniquely contemporary matrix of media. He wants to live his life and have it, too, so he is keeping a minutely detailed journal, "living his life twice to understand it once," leaving it to posterity as data for study like a scientific resource….

Westrum's own memory becomes entangled with and corrected by his memory bank in typescript. His certainties are challenged when people behave other than his image of them. Finally, instead of merely recording his life, his journal intervenes in his life, and in a sense both the life and its record prove to be manipulable.

This is a wryly amusing conclusion, rather than a gloomy one, as Mr. Harris handles it….

Roderick Nordell, "Airy Fantasies … Punctured Balloons," in The Christian Science Monitor (reprinted by permission from The Christian Science Monitor; © 1970 The Christian Science Publishing Society; all rights reserved), October 15, 1970, p. 13.