In his new novel, “How Sweet It Is!” (Mandel Vilar Press), Thane Rosenbaum rolls back the clock to 1972 and transports us to the less-than-sweet, unglamorous side of Miami Beach. Here, as in his previous works of fiction, Rosenbaum strives to balance moral seriousness with outrageous antic humor as he tries to make sense of what can never make sense: the Holocaust.
As in the musical “Cabaret,” there is a gregarious master of ceremonies at the center of the passing show. Here it is the entertainer Jackie Gleason, serving as our guide to the quirky characters who populate the town he highlighted on his weekly variety show in the 1960s. But by the time we meet him, he’s already in decline, a depressed and lonely clown bemoaning the loss of his former prestige. Instead of hosting a must-watch television variety show, he holds court as a patient at Mt. Sinai Hospital.
Gleason subtitled his TV show, “The American Scene Magazine,” but the Miami Beach scene is one of refugees and displaced persons from around the world. Rosenbaum describes the city’s street life this way: “Castro’s rejects and Hitler’s survivors united in Miami Beach like a parade of the persecuted, sharing notes on tribal anxieties, and trading recipes for kreplach and empanadas. Survival, however, was the special sauce.”
Survival is also on the minds of at least two other historical characters who frequented Miami Beach and who appear here. The Jewish gangster Meyer Lansky is back in Miami Beach after having been deported from Israel, where he had fled in an attempt to avoid being tried for income tax evasion. (Interestingly, the gangster also appears as a character in another recent novel, “Pity the Poor Immigrant” by Zachary Lazar.)
The Nobel Prize-winning author I.B. Singer is also a frequent visitor, seen here speaking to aging Holocaust survivors ,whose stories he would mine for material.
But these celebrities (and the 1972 Democratic and Republican National Conventions, both held in Miami) are nonetheless secondary to the dysfunctional fictional family at the center of the book, the Holocaust survivors Jacob and Sophie Posner and their 12-year-old son Adam. They are as mismatched as a family can be. Haunted by his experiences in hiding and as a partisan, the untalkative Jacob walks endlessly through the streets like a shell-shocked ghost. By contrast, the manic Sophie proudly displays the concentration camp numbers on her arm as a sign of her indestructibility — and fearlessly works her way up the ranks of Lansky’s gang until she becomes the first female consigliere in mobster history. And then there is adolescent Adam, a sensitive jock who tries to shrug off his parents’ neglect by excelling on the baseball mound, and going on long-distance runs to escape going home.
As in Rosenbaum’s earlier novel, “The Golems of Gotham,” real-life personages mix with fictional characters to such a degree that sometimes it’s hard to discern the real from the made-up. But that’s his point: in life, as in fiction, the absurd is commonplace. And Rosenbaum is at his best in scenes that feature quirky conceits and bitter satire.
As Adam approaches his 13th birthday, for instance, it’s his parents and their rabbi — survivors, all — who are indifferent to his having a bar mitzvah. In a generational turnabout, Adam insists on the importance of learning to read Torah. With his bar mitzvah set for September, Adam spends August studying trope and basking in Jewish pride at the athletic exploits of swimmer Mark Spitz, winner of seven gold medals at the Munich Olympics. Then September arrives — and the horrific terrorist massacre of nine Israelis at the Games. And yet the Olympic Games went on. In protest, the rabbi calls off Shabbat services — and Adam’s bar mitzvah — and instead organizes a congregational day of track and field events at the local Miami Beach stadium. And instead of being called to the bima, Adam sprints his way to several medals of his own.
In another bit of whimsy, Adam is on the verge of losing his nerve as he pitches the final inning of the Little League championship game between one team made up mostly of Jews and the other mostly of Cuban émigrés. Suddenly, out to the mound to settle him down comes the umpire — the well-known baseball fan Fidel Castro, in disguise. “The superpowers fought their battles through surrogates around the world. And now a Little League game was its own theater of war,” Rosenbaum writes. No wonder Fidel calls the game in favor of Adam’s team; it’s a lesson to the Cubans who turned their backs on the revolution. No matter. As Sophie sees it, “right here, in Miami Beach, after Auschwitz, we are all Olympians.”
And, in a final poignant twist, Gleason and Sophie meet and bond, as patients in adjacent rooms on the top floor of the Mount Sinai Hospital.
Having grown up in Miami Beach as the child of Holocaust survivors, Rosenbaum clearly knows well the dual territory of Miami Beach and survivorship.
His character portraits are full of verve and bite. But too many passages sound like essays rather than fiction. Yet despite this flaw, many readers will enjoy his take on Miami Beach back in the day. How sweet it all was — in memory, anyway.
Diane Cole, the author of the memoir “After Great Pain: A New Life Emerges” writes for The Wall Street Journal, among other publications.