The Old Left

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

THE OLD LEFT is a sequence of linked stories, a hybrid form somewhere between the novel and the short story collection as traditionally defined. The eight stories follow their central character, David Leonard, from his twenties to his forties; in all of them except the first, he is the narrator as well as the protagonist.

Formerly a newspaper reporter whose beat was City Hall, David has become a professor at the Columbia School of Journalism. Most of the stories focus on his relationship with his Uncle Sol, an unreconstructed Communist who, in his eighties, remains as pugnacious as ever. David’s dealings with him, laden with memories of boyhood summers at Uncle Sol’s farmhouse in the Berkshires, are a mixture of love and exasperation. At the same time, the stories offer an oblique chronicle of David’s slow acceptance of the roles of husband (he does not marry until he is thirty-eight) and father. His wife, Elizabeth, whom he meets in the Museum of Natural History’s Hall of Marsupials, is a vivid presence rendered with unembarrassed affection; the same is true of their son, Charlie, whose growth from infant to formidable two-year-old counterpoints Uncle Sol’s decline.

Although these stories are not strikingly original on the surface, they have their own distinct and very appealing flavor. Menaker has a fine eye for comic incongruities, yet he observes his characters with a gentleness uncommon in contemporary fiction. There is one troubling aspect to the book. Menaker presents Uncle Sol’s unswerving Communism as a comic eccentricity, rather as if he were a believer in UFO’s, yet there are also suggestions of nobility in his stubborn faith. Why has this lovable, fundamentally decent man, unlike so many of his contemporaries in the Old Left, failed to acknowledge that his faith was misplaced? What honor resides in that failure? Menaker never confronts these questions. After the news from the gulag, such evasiveness seems indefensible.

The Old Left

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 8)

The Old Left is not a random collection of short stories, but an integrated sequence. It traces the protagonist’s development from a rather oversensitive and callow young man to middle age and the acceptance of the various responsibilities it brings. The central relationships of the book are within the family: David and his brother Nick; David and his wife Elizabeth; and, above all, David and his Uncle Sol. Uncle Sol appears in all but the first two stories, and his changing relationship with David also unifies the sequence.

The Old Left begins with a stunning story, “Brothers,” on the death of Nick Leonard, David’s brother. The story begins in a deceptively idyllic holiday game of touch football in which the two brothers are playing their Boston cousins. Menaker emphasizes the differences between the brothers with curiously skewed sentences. “Nick could fix small things, David’s handwriting was impatient-looking and crude. Nick told stories, David joked.” There is, however, an important bond between the brothers. Reared by indifferent or absent parents, David perceives Nick as the only constant in an unstable world. This bond has loosened with Nick’s marriage, but it remains crucial for David. The disruption in that bond is brought about by a taunting demand that Nick play pass defense and take the burden off David. This brotherly banter is, perhaps, an echo of their earlier relationship. Unfortunately, Nick then injures his knee on the next play; David feels guilty, and the reassurances of Nick and his wife cannot relieve his uneasiness.

The family gathers when Nick develops an infection after the operation, and David’s guilt and anxiety are shared by the others over such matters as choosing the doctor and the hospital for the operation. There is a crucial scene in the story in which Nick has a brief remission of his disease and asks to see David. When David visits Nick, the dialogue is very ordinary, primarily about Nick’s condition, but there is an epiphanic moment when David realizes that “I would give my life for his.” The puzzled manner in which David comes to terms with this revelation transforms the cliché into a genuine and authentic emotion. Moments later, Nicky dies with an equally simple and ordinary speech: “Davey, this is it.” The story ends with the gathered family returning to their now-altered places, with David as a doubtful guide to the road ahead.

The second story, “I Spy,” is one of the least interesting and least integrated stories in the collection. Once more, David is the protagonist, and his strange experience spying on a company in East St. Louis to find out if they are making iced tea is rather tedious and uninteresting. What is important in the story is the theme of family. The man who sends him on his fruitless mission, Jim McCray, is a former FBI man who became friendly in the 1930’s with David’s Communist father. The friendship is so close that McCray was named guardian of the children if anything happened to the parents. The family concept is also continued into the discussion between David and his father about his trip. David’s father, Joe, reveals that all the local spies in World War II stayed at the same hotel in New York. When David asks why, he replies: “They were lonely.”

The next story, “Interference,” is the first—and one of the most interesting—of a series of stories dealing with David’s relationship with his Uncle Sol. The relationship is marked by a conflict over the future ownership of Sol’s farmhouse in the Berkshires. Sol had promised it to David, but, because of personal and political doubts, Sol will now leave it to the Young Communist League for a school. David is visiting his uncle at the farmhouse for the first time in years, and he is bringing his fiancée, Elizabeth. Elizabeth had met the acerbic Sol before in New York, and later she questions David about Sol’s plans for his country farmhouse. David, who always seems to be quarreling with Sol, resents this “interference” in family affairs. When they visit Uncle Sol at the farmhouse, however, Elizabeth drives Sol to town and they have a talk about the disposition of the property. When David asks about their conversation, it is related to him in a very ambiguous and incomplete fashion. The result, however, is efficacious since Sol relents and makes arrangements to leave David the farmhouse. The word “interference” now takes on another meaning; Elizabeth is running “interference” and clearing the way so that David and Sol, who love each other but cannot speak to each other in anything but a bantering and insulting manner, can come together. The story ends with David and Elizabeth in Vermont, which they compare unfavorably to the Berkshires. The change in attitude is evident as continuity replaces the earlier division: “Elizabeth says, ’If we have children, Uncle Sol’s will be a wonderful place to raise them.’”

The title story,...

(The entire section is 2033 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 8)

Booklist. LXXXIII, April 15, 1987, p. 1249.

Kirkus Reviews. LV, February 15, 1987, p. 249.

Library Journal. CXII, April 15, 1987, p. 100.

The Nation. CCXLIV, May 30, 1987, p. 736.

The New York Times. CXXXVII, April 27, 1987, p. 17.

The New York Times Book Review. XCII, May 3, 1987, p. 15.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXI, March 13, 1987, p. 71.