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An Excerpt from Avner Landes’s debut novel, Meiselman: The Lean Years

Both Kirkus Reviews and blurbers have compared Avner Landes’s debut novel, Meiselman: The Lean Years, to the writing of some literary greats, like Isaac Singer and Saul Bellow. But whatever literary echoes there may be, Avner Landes’s story also is very much his own. Please enjoy this excerpt below from Meiselman: The Lean Years, due out March 2021 from Tortoise Books.

Thankfully, he and Deena are not one of those couples that insist on spending every waking moment together. A drive to the store after dinner for the next morning’s milk or bananas is a solo job, usually handled by Meiselman because he does not trust Deena to travel the greater distance to the less expensive Jewel instead of the closer and more expensive Lucky’s. There was a time he insisted they pay condolence calls together, even when she complained of being unable to put a face to the congregant’s name. No, she could not just send a card. Did she want an empty mourner’s house when Meiselman’s parents’ time came, leaving her husband to deliver inspiring stories to an empty living room? Mother took great pride in her appearance. When Dad had his heart thing, she took time to do her makeup before leaving for the emergency room. She said afterwards, “I didn’t want my drabness to bring down the moods of the other waiting families. Besides, it’s not like they were waiting for me to open his chest and get his heart moving.” It preoccupied the woman, how decent people behave, he will tell those who come to pay their respects. When driving, she never passed up an opportunity to allow cars to cut in front of her into traffic. “It’s what decent people do,” she’d grumble behind the wheel. His father plodded ahead, unyielding, as if the cars waiting to turn were obstacles to be avoided. For his father, a different memory. Every birthday, every anniversary remembered. “You should have good strength to get through another year.” Even to the grandkids, this was his message. Based on family history, Meiselman has time, at least, for his mother.

(Cancer has been killing the community’s young mothers, and whenever Meiselman steps into these houses of mourning and sees the semi-orphaned children, the youngest with his head in the lap of the oldest, the middle child glued to a handheld video game, everyone trying to comfort the boy with a pinch of the cheek, unaware that if he looks up for even a second he will lose a life, and he understands Deena’s reticence. When it is a dead child, the gloom is even worse. Meiselman sends a platter of pastries from King Solomon’s with a note blaming his absence on unalterable travel plans. Book expo in Sacramento, he is prepared to answer if ever asked.)

Tonight, the destination is not local, and the excursion is not about death, but life. Obviously, he does not want Deena accompanying him, because it is not a simple matter of pulling his brother aside at the visit’s end and slipping in a request for a donation. If issued too abruptly, without a natural segue, without detailing options entertained and dismissed, the appeal will come out sounding preposterous, possibly deranged.

Around twice a year, Meiselman’s mother calls with news of an impending visit. She says, “For an overnight layover it will be just too much for your brother to drive all the way to New Niles.” The thirty-five minute drive out to the airport hotel to bring a Lasso Burger from Brad’s Burger Barn—extra Lasso onions—to Gershon, which he eats during a visit that lasts no longer than half-an-hour, is worth it to his parents. Meiselman and Deena are encouraged to come along. In the car, Meiselman’s father has no ability to silence Meiselman’s mother and allow father and son to listen to the White Sox broadcast, so Meiselman usually spends the entire ride with his head craned to the rear speaker. Deena always sleeps both ways. “She’s not overdoing it, I hope,” his mother inevitably says.

Without pressing him for a reason, his mother accepted his request to drive separately tonight, and to show up at the late end, alone. Fortunate, because he knows he would have ended up spilling his secret about the tests. Until now this problem has been kept from her. Why make her worry? Why spur her into action? She would assume a problem on Deena’s end, and he must keep his mother on Deena’s side and not have her turn on her the way she has turned on Gershon’s wife. Stuck-up. Snobby. New York attitude.

This means he can enjoy the radio broadcast of the game in the car without the guilt of telling his wife to hold a thought until the next commercial break. The suspense of baseball on the radio is intense. Waiting for the one swing that will disturb the announcers’ ramblings, which fill the dead air fuzz of the station’s delicate tuning. Stories of golf outings and reviews of cannolis and dogs brought to the booth, shout-outs to listeners who live at the far reaches of the station’s signal, and tales of barely known old-timers. A long season, they have the luxury of talking slowly, allowing each sentence to sink in. In the silence, the neighboring stations bleed into the signal, forcing Meiselman to hunch closer.

On the foolishness of trying to squeeze his father’s Lincoln into a parking spot with cars on both sides, his parents are in agreement, so Meiselman knows to find their car in the lot’s emptier back rows. The spot Meiselman takes is in the front closest to the hotel entrance, in direct line with his parents and Gershon, who sit in front of a window at the back of the hotel’s first floor bar-slash-lounge. Separating him from his family is the fire lane, a low wall of bushes bordering the sidewalk, and a craggy branched tree blooming white buds on a thin strip of grass. Through the window, Meiselman can see Gershon eating with his hands, unscrambling the bun and burger and onions onto the foil wrapping, a hesitancy to mix foods since he was a boy. His mother, still in her coat, talks. His father hangs his arms at his sides and stares up at the ceiling, mouth open.

© Avner Landes 2021

Avner Landes earned an M.F.A. from Columbia University, and works as a ghostwriter. He lives near Tel Aviv with his wife and two children. This is his debut novel. 

Photo by Dahlia Landes

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