June 2005

Sumita Sheth

fiction

The Unthinkable Thoughts of Jacob Green by Joshua Braff

Despite being cited as being a slow read by some, my reading of Joshua Braff's hilarious The Unthinkable Thoughts of Jacob Green was over in one short weekend. This is a book full of the anguish and pain of a teenage boy complicated further by the demands of a selfish and emotionally abusive father, resultant discordant family life, and Jacob's learning disability. The story opens with the house warming party where Jacob Greens's father Abrom must impress his friends with how wonderful his family is by putting them on display. Abrom's family of three sons, one daughter and wife are obviously uncomfortable with this. The same way that he is more involved in the details of his self-serving movie-night soiree (where he will get to showcase his own group) than driving Jacob to the emergency room with a broken wrist. Unlike a normal parent, he's not rattling on to distract his son. He is quite serious:

"So I got the projector for Saturday night, the fifth, and it's a go. The only question left is, Whoooo's got a better daaaaad than you-hoo?"
Oh, he's a jewel. A crisply cut jewel. An onyx, a ruby, a hamantasch-shaped sequin.
"Jacob?"
"No one, no one."
…I see the hospital sign. We're close. We're close.

Even once at the ER, Abrom proceeds to waste precious time flirting with the nurse even as Jacob writhes, hoping and praying for a shot to numb his flaring pain: "'That's funny,' he says. My luck. She must be attractive. One of those playboy nurses with the cleavage and the lipstick and the surgical gloves that snap. I need a shot, an X-ray, and a cast, and he's winking and spinning." Jacob Green remains is an obedient son. He wants to be liked by his father; he wants to please him as his religion and father teach him. He even admits to this in an excruciatingly painful confrontation with his father over dissatisfactory thank you cards for his bar mitzvah gifts:

"Garbage!" he says holding the stack high, his lips tightened and white. "You want to please me, is that what you want? Is it?"
I slowly nod.
"Answer me, you!" My father is now sitting up on the bed, waiting for a reply, his teeth clenched. "Answer me!"
"Yes."
"Yes, what?"
"Yes, I want to please you."
He smiles wickedly and shakes his head.

A large part of the book is about Abrom. He is someone who came to Judaism late in life, after his own father's death at the young age of fifty. He married a woman from outside the religion and we get the feeling that though she converted for him, he is now uncomfortable with the situation. Abrom seems to feel that he must make-up for his earlier lack of faith and his having married a convert by pushing his children harder to conform and believe. As he himself tries to explain to a very young Jacob after his first misdemeanor at school (he pulls the tzitzit off a Rabbi), he would like to be like his namesake Abraham in the bible, the one who sacrificed his son for his God. Now how disturbing is that for any ten-year-old to hear from their parent?

Abrom is struggling to hold on to the traditional authority given to a parent figure because more than anything else, it feeds his narcissistic needs. It is therefore no surprise that his family begins to hate him. The eldest son Asher rebels by refusing to conform, does not dress the way his father wants, makes friends with those his father disapproves of, chooses art as his calling and even vandalizes the yeshiva the brothers are signed up at per force. A horror to his conservative, hard-working accountant father! Jacob, along with Asher, is torn between his father and mother, as they stumble towards a divorce. With his one gift being annunciation of the Hebrew language, he finds trying harder and harder to "please" his father by going to prayer and struggling to "love" him as Abrom demands when the divorce is first discussed. There is a highly uncomfortable scene where the father demands to be hugged by Jacob when Jacob's mother has just declared that she wants to leave:

I try to move my legs but they're entangled in his. I can feel his breath on my neck and chin.
…"Dad."
"What?"
"I can't breathe."
"What did you say?"
…He shifts with a jerk and stares down at me. "I'm hurting you?"
"I just can't breathe with you on me like that."
"I'm loving you," he says, lifting his torso from mine, "I'm holding you and letting you know that I'm hurting and I need you right now. You can't give me that? So dramatic. 'I can't breathe, get off me, get off me' You really can't breathe?"

Once again, the melodrama is turned towards giving Abrom attention and sympathy. He doesn't care what the thirteen-year-old might need as his family is torn apart. The younger sister Dara and brother Gabriel appear to be spared most of the torture because of their relative innocence.

The two brothers show believable brotherly support for each other through words and actions. Everything rings true to life, reminiscent as it is of adolescence, including the drunken orgiastic party near the end with four almost adult kids and the two fifteen-year-olds. The book has an unresolved ending -- not everything is spelled out for us although we know there are choices to be made by Jacob. As we see him go beyond the novel's pages, we do wonder, "Where the hell is that kid going?"

The Unthinkable Thoughts of Jacob Green by Joshua Braff
Algonquin Books
ISBN: 1565124200
272 Pages