Galesburg and other foreign places

William Urban

Martin Litvin's latest novel, The Impresario, is a masterly short description of Galesburg and other foreign places. Galesburg a foreign place? Yes, because the past is a foreign country, and few living today--other than a few eccentric geniuses and odd-ball local historians (amateur and professional alike)--know the customs or the languages of their own communities, much less those of the distant lands where their ancestors orginated.

Litvin is an exception. Growing up Jewish in Galesburg, he learned at an early age to notice those fine points of difference by which the ethnic groups and classes distinguished themselves from everyone else--all running counter to the process of Americanization which was transforming them all. In 1995 it is hard to tell over the telephone whether the speaker's ancestry came from Sweden, from Russia, from Germany, or (sometimes) even from the South. Ninety-four years ago, when the novel takes place, everybody betrayed their origins the instant they opened their mouths; and most people with strong accents couldn't afford a phone. This multi-culturalism is one aspect of the novel which makes it worth buying and keeping: every community in western Illinois was somewhat like Galesburg in its ethnic mixture and its economy; only the proportions changed, and the ethnic background of the local entrepreneurs varied according to individual initiative, hard work, and luck.

The novel is based on a true incident in 1901 that Litvin stumbled upon in local newspapers while conducting research for his books about Carl Sandburg and George Fitch (the author of the Old Siwash stories)--the murder trial of Eddie Jackson, an illiterate Black ex-convict who was accused of kniving a White railroadman in a bar scuffle. Race relations has long been one of Litvin's concerns; in fact, he "gets" the tragic reality of discrimination so completely that readers have occasionally assumed he was Black himself! Quite a compliment for a quiet-spoken bald White guy of retirement age. However, that fits perfectly into the plot of the Impressario, where the main figure is a successful Jewish junk dealer named Solly Ruby, who comes to take an interest in Eddie Jackson and is increasingly drawn into the case in a manner almost unimaginable in today's Post-Liberal America.

Solly has problems of his own: his wife's fear of being rejected by the German-Jewish community because she and Solly are those lower-caste Russian Jews; the arrival of his son from his first marriage--the kid is brilliant, which makes his step-mother and siblings fearful and jealous; how to deal with his shifty business partner; how to balance Americanization and ethnic identity; and what to do about religion in an ever-more secular age. Nevertheless, Solly assumes a responsibility which goes beyond defending a man without a friend or family member even willing to visit him in jail, to manage Eddie's transformation into the type of citizen who would be worth having in society. Hence, the title of the book, The Impresario.

Litvin's style takes some getting used to. He isn't really writing prose. He's writing down an oral narration. This makes for strong dialogue and sparce descriptions, also for somewhat abrupt transitions and rather frequent insertions of sly wit. Asides are common: "In fact, Nat Hillinger thought of Annette as dangerous, which she surely was, and though Annette continued to be the beneficiary of her father's generosity, she was still little more than a common bitch." You don't find much of that kind of language in the average novel! But in Litvin's books reality and fiction intermingle rather more closely than in the pulps packed with the f-word and descriptions of sexual gymnastics.

He does not get into the Black community very deeply, and the non-immigrant White community appears only in the background. His male characters are better developed than the female (who, if lower class, tend to be forever overworked, catty and pregnant; if middle class, just catty); and the Goyim seem to drink too much or think too slowly. However, what can you expect of a book with the subtitle, "a short novel," and in which much of the dialogue occurs in the jail? His bit characters walk onto the stage, say their lines, and shuffle off again. Just like in real life. But for that moment, the stage is their's, and every now and then they try to steal the show.

Galesburg was still a young community in 1901, rough and somewhat crude. Many people were from somewhere else, many immigrants. Litvin can describe this society because when he was young, there were still people around who could talk about that era, people who still spoke Swedish, Russian, Yiddish. A generation from now, someone might still write a novel on this theme, but he or she will not have the personal experience to draw upon for describing the convincing, realistic characters who populate The Impresario.

In an era obsessed with multi-culturalism, it's nice to see a book which demonstrates the complexities, contradictions, and nuances of our local multi-cultural past. Also, it's enjoyable to read a novel which leaves you some hope for the future.