by Joe Panzica
Running Wild Press, May 2022
Available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, KOBO, and anywhere (besides bookstores) good books are sold
What makes a great novel? Is it one that deeply troubles you even as it recruits your affections? Or is it one that through forceful storytelling temporarily breezes away all immediate tensions and questions? Few manage both in any “outstanding” way. Escape Route by Elan Barnehama is a well-crafted attempt at such an astonishment. Readers will judge for themselves the extent of its triumph.
First off, this is a boomer book by a boomer about us boomers when we were too young to hold ourselves responsible for any serious damage we might cause. Therefore, on its face, it’s about the late sixties. Just another look at our troubled and troubling generation; frenetically breezy on the surface, but roiling with undercurrents.
“‘Zach, you have to trust new stuff even if it scares the shit out of you.’”
Resented as much as admired, and justly condescended to by predecessors and progeny alike, in Anglo America we boomers are remarkable mostly for our timing. And timing just happens to be a major facet of undeserved “luck” (what some might call “privilege”). We were, after all, fortunate enough to be born following the World Wars, but well before much awareness of climate change or of the true fragility of democracy and the rule of law we were so eager to contend against. With regard to the latter, was such “luck” only a poisoned blessing? One that seduced us into forgetting (or ignoring) that aforesaid fragility? As for climate change, we might justifiably be more self-forgiving–except what are we doing now? What vicious kind of joke are we playing on ourselves?
“I wasn’t trying to be funny. I wasn’t. I didn’t even know what was funny.”
One of Escape Route’s multiple minor tropes is the youthful construction of identity. Zach, the thirteen-year-old main character, sets himself to rehearsing the utterance “Outstanding!” as a potential new component of his own personal brand (a phrase not used in the book and mercifully yet to be coined in 1969). But “coming of age” involves many blitzkriegs of trials. In youth, more dramatically than in any other season, certain forms of innocence are being traded away. In exchange we might acquire expanding forms of awareness where we must find ways to orient ourselves to realities that are “new”, at least for us.
“‘Stop staring,’ she said. ‘It’s rude.’
‘I’m not staring at anything.’
‘You’re staring at Mrs. Baur’s numbers. You’re starting to freak her out.’
‘Pretty sure she was already freaked out.’
Ali filled a tiny paper cup with prayer wine and handed it to me. ‘Drink. It will calm you down’.”
(Later Ali, the older sister, teaches him to smoke pot.)
In 1960s New York City, there were neighborhoods where the arms of some adults bore the tattoos of Auschwitz numbers, and every family might try to choose a manner and a time to explain this to a new generation. The dialog above is from a flashback to Zach’s grandmother’s shiva. Later, this revelation takes new meaning following Zach’s bar mitzvah and the death of the grandfather as he begins to think about the passports his grandparents always kept ready by their door.
“Was my Bar Mitzvah simply a trick to get me to think I had a tribe to protect?”
It’s not any excuse for fatalism, but there are so many dangers we just don’t seem to know what to do about. For example, some of us are sure vaccinations and masks are the only right way to deal with pandemics. Our best science tells us so. Others are equally militant that there are no guarantees, so we must simply muddle ahead trying to find advantage and enjoyment when we can. Such ideations are also supported by peculiar brands of religion, tradition, and their collective affinities, as well as by so many of the urges and urgencies of our collective life force. In the meantime, we breed.
Thirteen-year-old Zach is a questioner motivated by ideals, a thirst for understanding, and an aptitude for numbers. With equal devotion he tracks the box scores of the Mets and the daily body counts from Vietnam. But Zach is no kid who likes “to sit around and mourn”. His season “might as well be spring”. He’s got the fever of youth and a protective circle of friends, so we only get flashes of hints of what might “really hang him up the most.” Sure, the titular idea of an “escape route” is no minor trope, but Barnhama etches it much deeper than any possible threat to Jews or the danger of being drafted to Vietnam. Still, when you’re thirteen years old, both are equally distant–and just as urgent. And in certain seasons of our life the allure of “escape” is broader than any particular stressor. But in this quick-moving page flipper, it is also only one strong current tightly compressed beneath a flood of other temptations, obsessions, and alarms. If we so choose, however, we can bask in Zach’s breezy engagement with fresh experiences where allurements and dangers are both just part of the prime-time lineup. After all, he’s still a kid who doesn’t yet know what is really funny, a poignant way of reminding us he’s also too young to know “what is” real tragedy.
“I never minded when Jonah made up my mind. Jonah was cool. I wasn’t.”
There are seasons when incidents and information come at us like the blast of a firehose threatening to upend our fragile balance. In some such seasons, despite the upheaval, we don’t terminally lose our footing. However uneasily, or painfully, we can still incorporate a portion of the novelties as if they were nutrients, with some realistic sense of growing, of “learning.” Crucially though, Barnehama’s writing grips tightly at the flash of rapid action, leaving us to decide whether to rip through the pages quickly–or when to stop and consider… The tagline “Sex, Drugs, Rock-n’roll, and Baseball” could aptly harpoon a large segment of this ceaseless flow while perhaps obscuring what is important about the darker undercurrents. And this rush will be the primary enlivening experience for readers of Escape Route. Everything else, including the urge to flee, or protect others from danger, is submerged. Their forms bob up inopportunely as asides or as tantalizingly crafted “loose” ends, reminding us that at any age there is only so much we are able or willing to take on.
Maybe such rumblings will capture your attention–or maybe not. There’s just so much to captivate you. The book is a paean to a certain brand of humor, to the streets and rhythms of New York City, to philosophy, and to the magic of youth–if you’re lucky enough to have a tight circle of friends who help you get by even if you are difficult, way too smart, anxious, and never know when to stop questioning. Along with the gropings, illegal substances, jarring music, and so much baseball, there’s mathematics and the multifarious voices of FM disc jockeys, who late at night as you drift into sleep and you are only thirteen, can be unironically godlike.
“‘When you start your monologue about the war everyone around you wants to kill themselves.’
‘They do?’ I asked.
‘Everyone,’ Jonah said.
‘Everyone?’ I asked.
‘Everyone,’ Tony agreed.
‘And the girls,’ Jonah said, ‘the girls, they just walk away.’
‘Do you want the girls to walk away?’ Mel asked.
“I do not.”
‘Neither do I,’ Jonah said. ‘So you may not, under any circumstances, talk about the war when we’re at the park.’
‘It’s an ANTI-WAR protest,’ I protested.
‘Exactly. Everyone is already against the war.’”
As much as this book, deep down, is a story about anxieties, it is also a story about stories. What kind of stories might make us better? And how might such stories (even if we knew how to tell them) be protected from being twisted, corrupted, or merely trivialized? Elan Barnehama is a master storyteller who keeps the action tight in just over two hundred quick pages. Through it all, you’ll be glad you carry access to centuries of music on your phone as you read. We boomers may fall abjectly flat when compared to any possible “greatest generation,” but we have the privilege of being associated with some astonishingly great music. Each chapter is titled after a pop song associated with the passing of the sixties, and references to others bubble up as frequently any other type of atmospheric. But when it comes to whatever is eternal in the fleeting rush of youth, you won’t need headphones to feel the emotion.
Review by Joe Panzica