For most of us, “Oreo” does indeed conjure the beloved cookie. And most of us will not be aware that in the 70s, “Oreo” was the term used to denote those in the US who found themselves at that delicate nexus of Black and Jewish.
“Oreo,” Fran Ross’s only novel, was published in 1974, virtually ignored at the time and reissued last summer by New Directions. Dwight Garner, a book critic for The New York Times, reviewed it and declared, “Today it would be where it belongs, up among the 20th century’s lemony comic classics, novels that range from “Lucky Jim” and “Cold Comfort Farm” to “Catch-22” and “A Confederacy of Dunces.” The accolade caught my attention and I finally laid hands on a copy.
Think back to 1974. It was two years before “Roots” would appear. Ross died 11 years after publication, at 50.
It is a picaresque novel with the heroine, yes, an “Oreo” in search of her vanished Jewish father. While her father may have left, her Jewishness is deeply etched, reflected in her thinking, her speech and the foods she loves. The plot is unimportant, essentially a vehicle for riffs on language. Those who know the Theseus myth will see parallels, delineated in Danzy Senna’s introduction.
So is this a work of comic genius? I haven’t encountered such joyous language play in years. Starting with: “… she had her mother’s love of words, their nuance and cadence, their juice and pith, their variety and precision, their rock and wry.”
One of Oreo’s professor’s is furious that she has used the word “badly” in an adverb drill. Her response: “I am writing a story about a repentant but recidivous rapist. In this story, this repentant rapist catches his hand in a wringer. Therefore, when he goes out recidivously to rape, he feels both bad and badly.”
The professor kissed Oreo on both cheeks.
More than forty years after publication, “Oreo” stands the test of time.
Sharon Anstey is a writer and business consultant.