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Oy Vey: A Political Statement

by Archives September 29, 2009

The sins of a son and daughter are visited time and time again, torturing their father in Michael Tregebov’s semi-comedic but thoroughly mediocre new novel, The Briss.
When his son Teddy turns up on CNN defending Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian Authority and worse, announcing his engagement to a Palestinian woman he’s impregnated, hapless Jewish retiree Sammy Ostrove is on the verge of a breakdown. With his wife despondent, himself ostracized, and his daughter under fire for scandals of her own (Divorce! Cheating! Anal sex!), the poor father seems destined for an early grave.
Jumping back and forth in time and perspective, the novel tracks the reverberations of Teddy’s political realignment, a move tantamount to treason in the insular world of Jewish Winnipeg, within his family and community.
Sammy, who fought in the Israeli War of Independence in 1948, and his wife Anna, who opposed Vietnam and identifies herself as a Marxist, are unable to rectify their Canadian progressive self-images with their deep-seeded fear and mistrust of all things Arab, ‘the enemy.’
If it sounds didactic, that’s because it is.
Tregebov, for all of his deeply-felt political beliefs, is unable to bring them to life on the page. Rather than setting up the parameters of his arguments and letting them play out in the readers’ minds, he feeds them to us pre-chewed, undercutting any chance for intellectual exploration with jokes and boorish behaviour.
Take this exchange: “‘It’s true! There are hundreds of Israelis in jail who refuse to go into the army,’ [said Teddy.] ‘It’s not true!’ Shouted Anna, ‘we’ve never seen that on TV.'”
That groaner response, underlining just how foolish the dissenter can be, reveals far more about Tregebov’s moral grandstanding, and his need to spell everything out to in big bold letters. Such plodding didacticism takes readers out of the narrative instead of drawing them in.
The author himself seems to realize this and such scenes of earnest moralizing are bracketed by what is supposed to be comic relief, but what amounts to a page of vaudevillian-affected dialogue, peppered with enough one-liners and Yiddishisms to make even Mel Brooks blush.
Of course, the book is not a total wash. There are, in fact, intermittent passages of some promise throughout this freshman novel. A wonderful scene early on finds Sammy dropping off a lifelong friend off at the hospital. This friend, in frail health already, is going in for intensive heart surgery and it’s clear to both men that this might be the last time they ever see each other. The author’s agenda here is neither comedic nor political, but simply in evoking the reality of a heartbreaking moment, and he succeeds admirably.
Frankly, that scene works so well because it is wholly about the characters, not the author. If Tregebov can have a little more faith in his readers, and cease the perpetual mentions of his Semitic roots, he may yet write a great book.

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