Contemporary society has discovered self-analysis with a fury. Challenging our lives, questioning our motives, and confronting situations are matters reflected not only in daily conversations, but also in our forms of cultural expression. Movies explore the mind, self-improvement books abound, and various schools of self-analysis find new adherents daily. Julia Markus’ short novel Uncle also concerns itself with these matters. Yet Markus has written a book not so much concerned with finding answers as with observing a process. The reader is swept along by the story as an observer rather than a participant in the conflict portrayed. The story illuminates but does not involve.
Irving Bender, the hard-working, self-sacrificing son of Eastern European Jewish immigrants, occupies the center of this novel. He is the “uncle” who exercises his influence on family, friend, and lover alike. As the novel begins, Irv seems to give everything possible to make life easier and better for those he loves or those for whom he feels responsibility. However, slowly and subtly the author lays out his “good deeds” for inspection; as she does so, his motives become increasingly complex.
The novel is structured in three parts. Markus introduces the characters in a terse, lackluster style, not unlike the life the Bender family leads in Jersey City. She employs short sentences almost devoid of detail which skim over events and rapidly carry the reader through early years and disappointments. Irv sacrifices his own education so that Babe can attend college; yet Irv succeeds financially, and Babe fails. Irv works hard to support his widowed mother and younger brother, sacrificing his personal life; Babe finds time to fall in love and marry. Irv and his friend, Mandel Mershheimer, become partners in a summer camp in the Poconos; Irv struggles to make it a success, while Mandy goes off to experience the glory of war. Babe gives up and commits suicide; Irv cares for his sister-in-law Esther and his niece Suzanne. Yet while Irv accepts responsibility for the lives of others, Markus does not attempt to explain why. The reader observes the development of events, but he does not question the motives behind them.
Camp Rose Lake becomes a booming success under Irv’s direction, and he becomes “uncle” to children and parents alike. The camp is an escape from disappointments: Babe’s death, his friend Mandy. Yet Mandy returns to the camp from Los Angeles. Following the war he had traveled in Europe and had written a best-seller. In a wave of prominence, he had turned the camp over to Irv and gone to Los Angeles to write; but his subsequent novels, like his three marriages, were not successful. Down on his luck, he invades Irv’s sanctuary to ask for money. Thus Irv’s retreat—the camp—becomes but another scene of disappointment.
That same summer finds nineteen-year-old Suzanne teaching arts and crafts at the camp, with Irv still the protective uncle. She thinks she is in love with Larry, whom Irv hired to help out at the camp. However, Larry was not hired because of his qualifications, but because Irv fell in love: in the middle of life he has recognized that he is homosexual. Markus treats Irv’s discovery with as little trauma and alarm as she handles other events in the book. By avoiding detail, she also avoids stereotypes. Markus draws her characters sketchily, providing only enough definition for them to take form; she does not give them away. This device may appear to be a weakness early in the novel, but progressively it becomes a strength instead.
Suzanne has grown up a protected little princess, poorly prepared to cope with the events which follow. Rejected by Larry, she receives her sexual initiation from Mandy, her uncle’s friend. When Irv becomes aware of this, he feels betrayed; he gives Mandy the $10,000 he has come in search of and sends him on his way. While...
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