Ehud Havazelet’s Bearing the Body is a gritty, dirty, dysfunctional look at how families grow apart until an unexpected death causes them to recognize and mourn their emotional distance.
In Havazelet’s universe, characters struggle to keep lovers and family members in their lives as they desperately search for happiness.
Havazelet is an Oregon author who lays claim to two award-winning short story collections and a variety of high-profile teaching jobs, including a professorship at the University of Oregon. Bearing the Body is his first published novel.
Flaws and failings drawn into the personas of Havazelet’s characters make them round, complex people that come alive through the pages. Bearing the Body‘s two main characters are Sol and Nathan, who are mourning Daniel, but Havazlet also includes Daniel’s perspective and narratives from supporting characters.
Sol, the father, is an old, bitter Holocaust survivor and widower. He views the world mostly through a negative lens. He’s having a hard time adjusting to becoming old and his body’s fragility frightens him. He hides this fear with his sharp tongue. He’s disappointed about his youngest son Nathan’s lack of career success and he disparages everything that Nathan says, disapproves of everything Nathan does.
Nathan is a middle-aged failure. He goes through the motions of life without passion or purpose. He attempts to do the bare minimum to keep both his less-than-stellar career and empty relationship with his partner Janet.
He derives little pleasure from his life and has little concern for consequence. Although he tries to maintain an accomplished appearance, there are visible cracks in his façade. He also struggles with the changes of getting older.
Sol and Nathan are brought together by Daniel’s murder. Daniel, Sol’s eldest son and Nathan’s brother, was an intelligent, socially active teenager who was revered by his entire high school. Nathan grew up in Daniel’s shadow. Daniel was a rebel with dreams, goals and ambitions. Yet, at the time of his death, he had accomplished nothing except becoming a burned out heroin addict in San Francisco.
Sol and Nathan don’t know much about Daniel’s adult life and his sudden death shocks them. Together they fly from their respective homes in Boston to San Francisco to try to mold the fragments of Daniel’s life and death into a picture that they can understand.
Sometimes, Bearing the Body meanders off course onto tangents that don’t directly feed into any plot points. Other times Havazelet unnecessarily doubles scenes through different character perspectives or focuses on minor characters that don’t add to the story. Overall, it is an extremely eloquently written novel that captures the complexities of love and family.
Havazelet neatly ties up the book at the end but all of the history in the book, both fictional and real, leave a gritty residue in the reader’s mouth. The “happy ending” possesses a fairytale quality after all of the characters’ worldly sorrow, despair and uncertainty.