Mormon and Jewish Wrestling for a Soul: The Book of Norman

I’ve been reading Allan Appel’s charming and interesting novel, The Book of Norman, published this year by Mandel Vilar Press. It’s a rare— exceedingly rare- glimpse into an intriguing corner of the American melange: Mormon and Jewish areas of collision, crisis and the prospect for cooperation.

For me, the novel is also a window into late 1960s Los Angeles. I’ll get back to the Jewish-Mormon intersection, but the novel’s urban twist put me in mind of Dustin Hoffman’s portrayal in that evergreen film, The Graduate, and its depiction of a coming-of-age confused and ambitious young man. Like the film, the novel depicts middle class Los Angeles and suburban life.

The Book of Norman, is set at the same time as The Graduate, in a quite different Los Angeles. Appel’s novel is about Olympic Blvd, not the Valley, about a more modest set of striving than Hoffman’s attraction and reaction to the glitter of wealth and the promise of plastic. Both the film and the novel presents subtle insights into intriguing corners of vernacular Los Angeles. Appel’s novel gives us something fleeting and unusual: a small insight into Mormon Los Angeles contraposed against a complex Jewish canvas, all told through popular culture, episodically, emotionally, and with a novelist’s truth.

The Graduate is relatively explicit about sex, and implicit about assumptions concening the subtleties of Los Angeles demography. The Book of Norman is quite the opposite: modest about sex but explicitly, deeply and perceptively exploring the subculture of Los Angeles Jews of the late 1960s.

The Book of Norman concerns two brothers, in their twenties with each experiencing a religious moment of Truth, each trying to keep his crisis away from their mother (who has long been a waitress working long unsatisfying hours at Canter’s Delicatessen on Fairfax Boulevard).

Norman Gould, the main protagonist and narrator, is the model student and ideal son, trained in the bosom of Temple Beth Ami, a very thinly veiled version of a largish Conservative Temple, Beth Am. Having survived through bar mitzvah lessons and Hebrew School there, he was fulfilling the dream of the Great Chain of loyalty by attending what was then the University of Judaism and, warming the cockles of his mother’s heart, ascending to the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City, on course to becoming a rabbi.

But as the book begins, we learn that Norman, wracked with doubt, had abandoned his rabbinical discipline and had been virtually dismissed from the Seminary.

His younger brother Jon had lived the good L.A. life , surfing, enjoying drugs, fulfilling a different more personal set of hopes. Now however, just as religious commitment leaks away from his brother, Jon has discovered Mormonism, making for yet another secret.

In this way the vagaries of life interrupt the established scenario, the expected contrast between a kosher-keeping scholarly brother and the sibling who seemed destined to disappear into the emptiness of California Dreamin”

The novel becomes a series of acute insights as Norman tries to cope with his own religious decline while vainly trying to keep his brother within the faith of their parents and generations beyond. There is intense drama and flights of theological exploration. The specific turf for wrestling, as the novel unfolds, involves the Mormon practice of specific conversion, including the dead, like Norman and Jon’s father.

Appel explores this material with experiential comfort. The book is delicately memoiristic: Appel himself was a star Hebrew School pupil and attended Temple Beth Am and the Seminary. His brother (who was older, not younger as in the book) converted to Mormonism. Appel is a product of the neighborhood of Olympic Boulevard and that significant mid-class Los Angeles society that generated much enterprise, ambition and talent . An earlier novel, The Rabbi of Casino Boulevard, was a demonstration of Appel’s nice capacity to capture vernacular aspects of Jewish Southern California, with its sun-baked idiosyncracies.

Many aspects of the book provide for spectacular reading, elegantly rendered Jon and Norman spend their complex summer together teaching at a summer camp at the Temple as they struggle over their relationship and futures. Two women—beautiful and strong Israelis—are recruited by the Temple to work with them. Sexual fantasies yield to admiration: the women turn out to be angels, with divine capabilities, used in amazing ways, to help Norman prevent, at least for a time, the Mormon conversion attempt.

The once famous and bustling Ship’s Coffee Shop has a cameo role: It is where Norman blatantly plays out his retreat from Judaism by gorging on cheeseburgers and whatever treyf product he can obtain. Appel’s humor and comedic gift is present on every page, even while the book struggles with larger philosophical and mystical issues.

Appel becomes a bard of Olympic Boulevard. He pinpoints how the institutions, repressions, experimentations, even automobile geographies, of the 1960s generated consequences for modern society. The Book of Norman is an exciting read, abundant with insights into rarely conjoined subjects. Where else can you gain meaningful understanding of Mormon heaven, Jewish understanding of the function of angels and greater familiarity with the tipping practices at Canter’s.

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