In 'Believers', Courage And Cowardice Of Conviction

The Believers
The Believers
By Zoe Heller
Hardcover, 352 pages
Harper
List price: $25.99
Read An Excerpt

Author Meghan Daum writes a weekly column for the Los Angeles Times. Her most recent book is Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived in That House.

Just about any writer who's had his or her work dissected in a writing workshop is familiar with the complaint: "I simply don't like this character." What it means is that unlikable characters make for unlikable books.

I don't agree. Case in point: Zoe Heller's novel, The Believers. It's infused with so much wit and intelligence that you don't care a bit that it's populated with some jaw-droppingly prickly people. At the center of this bitter goulash is the Litvinoff family. There are three grown children — Rosa, Karla and Lenny. Then there's the sour British ex-pat mother, Audrey, and the father, Joel, a well-known radical lawyer in the William Kuntsler mode. Raised in a bubble of lefty intellectualism in Greenwich Village, they attended the Little Red School House. They also sat in rapt attention as their father expounded about Marxism over pancakes. Now, the kids are struggling to find their own doctrines. Rosa, adrift after living in Cuba for four years, has become enamored of Orthodox Judaism. Karla, who's struggling with infertility and married to a humorless union organizer, finds solace in an unlikely sexual dalliance. Meanwhile Lenny, whom the Litvinoffs adopted at 7 in a rather self-congratulatory goodwill gesture, is a heroin addict.

The story revolves around Joel. He spends most of the book unresponsive in a hospital bed following a stroke. But his presence — which is to say the residue of his ego — is felt on each page, not least of all through Audrey, who despite being, like her husband, a proud atheist who had often, Heller writes, shaken her head ruefully at "dotty sanctity-of-life types," insists on keeping him alive through artificial means. Along the way, she also discovers her husband has a longtime mistress with whom he fathered a child.

I could tell you more of the plot of The Believers. But it's not what's best about this novel. For me, what's so exhilarating is Heller's ear. Not just for her descriptions and dialog but for her tough, compassionate observations of human pettiness. I love this exchange between Rosa and Karla after a visit to the apartment of their father's mistress:

"Did you take a look at her idiotic books?"

"No," Karla lied.

"It was all How to Read Palms and diet books."

"Well, you don't love someone because of the books they read."

"Don't you?"

Meghan Daum i i

Author Meghan Daum writes a weekly column for the Los Angeles Times. Her most recent book is Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived in That House. Laura Kleinhenz hide caption

itoggle caption Laura Kleinhenz
Meghan Daum

Author Meghan Daum writes a weekly column for the Los Angeles Times. Her most recent book is Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived in That House.

Laura Kleinhenz

The Litvinoffs aren't just a family, they're a symbol — of earnest leftiness, of NPR listenership writ large, of downtown Manhattan as locus of bohemian idealism. But even though this book is a satire, it's also tender about the ways these family members now find themselves profoundly unmoored. Their solution: to search for ballast in the form of belief systems; to fill the hole left by Joel's imminent death with an equally doctrinaire, if ultimately less loving, set of gospels. The result is a poignant, sometimes outrageous and very often hilarious novel about the courage — and also the cowardice — of standing by your convictions at all costs. I recommended it to more friends than I can count.

You Must Read This is produced and edited by Ellen Silva.

Excerpt: 'The Believers'

The Believers

London, 1962

At a party in a bedsit just off Gower Street, a young woman stood alone at the window, her elbows pinned to her sides in an attempt to hide the dark flowers of perspiration blossoming at the armholes of her dress. The forecast had been for a break in the weeklong heat wave, but all day the promised rain had held off. Now, the soupy air was crackling with immanent brightness and pigeons had begun to huddle peevishly on window ledges. Silhouetted against the heavy, violet sky, the Bloomsbury rooftops had the unreal, one-dimensional look of pasted-on figures in a collage.

The woman turned to survey the room, wearing the braced, defiant expression of someone trying not to feel her solitude as a disadvantage. Most of the people here were students, and aside from the man who had brought her, she knew no one. Two men had separately approached her since she had been standing at the window, but fearful of being patronized, she had sent them both away. It was not a bad thing, she told herself, to remain composed on the sidelines while others grew careless and loud. Her aloofness, she fancied, made her intriguing.

The Believers
By Zoe Heller
Hardcover, 335 pages
HarperCollins
List price: $25.99

For some time now, she had been observing a tall man across the room. He looked older than the other people at the party. (Casting about in the exotic territory of old age, she had placed him in his early thirties.) He had a habit of massaging his own arms, as if discreetly assessing their muscularity. And from time to time, when someone else was talking, he raised one leg and swung his arm back in an extravagant mime of throwing a ball. He was either very charming or very irritating: she had not yet decided.

"He's an American," a voice said. Audrey turned to see a blond woman smiling at her slyly. She was wearing a violently green dress and a lot of recklessly applied face powder that had left her nose and chin a queer orange color quite distinct from the rest of her complexion. "A lawyer," she said, gesturing across the room at the tall man, "His name's Joel Litvinoff."

Audrey nodded warily. She had never cared for conspiratorial female conversation of this sort. Its assumption of shared preoccupations was usually unfounded in her experience, its intimacies almost always the trapdoor to some subterranean hostility. The woman leaned in close so that Audrey could feel the damp heat of her breath in her ear. The man was from New York, she said. He had come to London as part of a delegation, to brief the Labour Party on the American civil rights movement. "He's frightfully clever, apparently." She lowered her eyelids confidentially. "A Jew, you know."

There was a silence. A small breeze came in through the gap in the window where it had been propped open with books. "Would you excuse me?" Audrey said.

"Oh!" the woman murmured as she watched her walk away.

Pressing her way through the crowd, Audrey wondered whether she had dealt with the situation correctly. There was a time when she would have lingered to hear what amusing or sinister characteristic the woman attributed to the man's Jewishness — what business acumen or frugality or neurosis or pushiness she assigned to his tribe — and then, when she had let the incriminating words be spoken, she would have gently informed the woman that she was Jewish herself. But she had tired of that party game. Embarrassing the prejudices of your countrymen was never quite as gratifying as you thought it would be; the countrymen somehow never embarrassed enough. It was safer, on the whole, to enjoy your moral victory in silence and leave the bastards guessing.

Audrey halted now, at the sound of someone calling her name. Several yards to her left, a stout red-haired youth was standing between two taller men in an unwitting turret formation. This was Martin Sedge, her date for the evening. He was waving and beckoning, making little smoky swirls in the air with his cigarette: "Audrey! Come over here!"

Audrey had met Martin three months before, at a conference of the Socialist Labour League in Red Lion Square. Despite being one year her junior, he was much more knowledgeable about political theory — much more experienced as an activist — than she was, and this inequality had given their friendship a rather pedagogical cast. They had been out together four times, always to the same grimy pub around the corner from where Audrey worked, and on each of these occasions their conversation had swiftly lapsed into tutorial mode, with Audrey sipping demurely at her shandy, or nibbling at a pickled egg, while Martin sank pints of beer and pontificated.

She did not mind being talked at by Martin. She was keen to improve herself. (On the flyleaf of the diary she was keeping that year, she had inscribed Socrates' words, "I know nothing except the fact of my ignorance.") There was a girlish, renunciatory streak in her that positively relished Martin's dullness. What better proof could there be of her serious-mindedness — her rejection of the trivial — than her willingness to spend the spring evenings in a saloon bar, absorbing a young man's dour thoughts on the Fourth International?

Tonight, however, Martin seemed at pains to cast off his austere instructor's persona. In deference to the weather and to the festive nature of the occasion, he had forgone his pilled Shetland sweater in favor of a short-sleeved shirt that revealed his pink, ginger-glazed forearms. Earlier in the evening, when he had met Audrey at the Warren Street tube station, he had kissed her on the cheek — a gesture never hazarded before in the short history of their acquaintance.

"Audrey!" he bellowed now, as she approached. "Meet my mates! Jack, Pete, this is Audrey."

Audrey smiled and shook Jack and Pete's wet hands. Up close, the three men were a small anthology of body odors.

"You out of drink?" Martin asked. "Give me your glass, and I'll get you another. It's bedlam in that kitchen."

Excerpted from The Believers by Zoe Heller. Copyright 2009 by Zoe Heller. Excerpted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers.

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