Wednesday, August 18, 2010

SCRAMBLED EGGS--JIM POWELL'S FIRST NOVEL


Jim Powell makes no small demands from readers of his novel, THE BREAKING OF THE EGGS. First of all, he expects those readers to believe that a Polish communist living in Paris sounds like a public--Britspeak for private--school Brit. The matter of authentic voices is only one of the problems with Powell’s book. That he chose to make his main character, Feliks Zhukovski into a  modified rerun of Belikov, Chekhov’s arch sourpuss in ‘Man In a Case” is another. Presumably, it serves to contrast the progressive mellowing that occurs in the second part of the novel. I don’t buy it. Feliks’s long lost brother Woody seems to be the catalyst for this evolution toward human warmth, but there Powell fails once more. Woody, who relocated in the American Midwest, after World War II, is a caricature of the assimilated immigrant who derives his happiness from America’s shallow values. He does well selling real estate, he acquires a Macmansion and awife who looks like Nancy Reagan. Together they have children whose perfect teeth and down home manners baffle Feliks. But then, for all his self-conscious disclaimers,  everything in America, except Bourbon,  seems to annoy and baffle him.
“There are things that I dislike in American society," he says, as a preamble to  his disquisitions on a country he visited for a few days.  

For a man who claims to care more about ideas than he cares about people, Feliks is particularly obtuse in vast generalizations about America and Americans. He claims that France, the capitalistic country where he earns a good living peddling guides to and conducting tours of Eastern Europe, is not his home. Nevertheless, a brief visit to America and brief contact with his brother's American family prompts him to say that,

“I find (American society) very materialistic, very acquisitive. Also I find it exploitative. I mean, you may have have a comfortable life yourself, Woody, but there are millions who do not. “

When Woody disagrees, he says,

““Other places care about changing the situation.” Skipping over the Civil and Rights Movement, and he plunges another skewer into poor Woody’s chest,

”I notice that your club does not appear to welcome black people except as servants." That, he adds is tantamount to apartheid. Somehow I hear not the Pole’s voice, but the stereotypical whine of anti-American Brit who has yet to come to terms with Britain’s loss of its colonies--definitely not cricket from my Brazilian-American point of view. But then, unlike sophisticated Europeans--I wonder if that includes football hooligans and members of France’s national Front--I am pretty American. In Feliks’s world that means that I do not drink much, I eat dinner before nine P.M. and I believe that there are places in Europe where it does not snow.

THE BREAKING OF THE EGGS has been described as a book about the effects of movements such as fascism and communism on the common folk. It has been touted by no other than the lit critic in The Huffington Post as one of the most important books of the decade. My take is that it is a better- than-average first novel. Does it really tell me much about the common folk? Hardly. While I read it I thought of other displaced Europeans who lost everything when Feliks’s communists idols took over Eastern Europe. I found it hard to work up much sympathy for his crisis of faith, True, the political changes in Eastern Europe unmoored him. So what? I kept hoping to catch a glimpse of Pnin, one of the most endearing European immigrants in Twentieth Century literature. That was unfair of me. Jim Powell is no Nabokov.
Image from Carnegie Mellon









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