By Michael Jacobs / firstname.lastname@example.org
Two recent works of fiction by locals — a Jewish native writing about her hometown and a Dunwoody transplant writing about Israel — are reminders of how much talent we have in the Atlanta area.
Natalie Grude Harrington’s “Highland Avenue” is an unassuming book, from its simple cover and its claim to be merely a novella to its modest scope of a single day in the life of an 88-year-old man.
The story of one day can be epic, of course, as James Joyce showed in “Ulysses,” the story of another Jewish man, Leopold Bloom. But the power and sweetness of Harrington’s story come from its simplicity and modesty.
“Highland Avenue” is about Sam Robkin, a man based on the author’s father. He’s a widower who lives alone on St. Charles Place, stubbornly refusing to leave his house of half a century to move in with his daughter’s family across town.
On an April morning in 1995, he’s feeling better than he has in some time, and he decides to go for a walk. The only action is his progress up to Highland Avenue and over to Virginia Avenue, then his increasingly difficult way back as his age and health try to stop him.
There’s a bit of drama in those final blocks, but you shouldn’t read “Highland Avenue” for the action or even for the sweet, refreshing interactions Sam has during a couple of stops on his journey. You should read this book for the memories Sam relives as he shuffles along.
In slightly more than 120 pages, Harrington gives us a personal history of Jewish Atlanta covering more than a century.
I’m a newcomer in Atlanta, having arrived only a decade ago, so nothing Harrington writes about connects with my personal history. But it’s still entertaining and fascinating to read about a Jewish merchant in Fayetteville driving a horse and cart into the city 20 miles each way for kosher food, or Friday football games at Boys’ High, or car hops riding on bumpers at the Varsity, or the evolution of Virginia-Highland businesses and property values.
I’m sure it all hits close to home for many of you, but it should be a pleasant walk down memory lane for all.
“Forever, Indeed” by John Jedlicka takes a much longer walk through a much wider swath of Jewish and world history.
Jedlicka, a native New Yorker and Dunwoody resident who is not Jewish but has a solid grounding in classics, delves into a mystery related to the Dead Sea Scrolls, specifically the Copper Scroll. It involves the siege and mass suicide at Masada, all the oil in Saudi Arabia, and the love between a poor Jew and a kidnapped Arabian princess. All of those things from the first century C.E. are connected to what develops into a modern spy thriller involving assassins, terrorists, the Mossad, the Vatican and shadowy Swiss-based oil interests known as the Gray Men.
The mix of biblical mysteries with modern intrigue naturally brings up thoughts of Dan Brown’s overheated novels “The DaVinci Code” and “Angels & Demons.” But Jedlicka’s story is both more original and more realistic, which is to say that the plot doesn’t depend on any global conspiracies or murderous cabals within the Catholic Church.
As long as you’re willing to accept the power of fate or destiny or love or divine intervention to bring together the descendants of the key people in the right places after two millennia, you should enjoy the story Jedlicka has crafted. The characters are likable, and the plot is intelligent if a bit predictable.
As a bonus, Jedlicka uses his characters’ twisted family histories to illustrate some big ideas about the interconnections of Judaism, Islam and Christianity in the Middle East. Today’s Israeli soldier just might be the direct descendant of yesteryear’s Arab princess, and that Lebanese terrorist might trace his lineage back to a Jewish merchant.