In his new book, "Prayers for the Living" (Fig Tree Books, $15.95), author and National Public Radio commentator Alan Cheuse addresses a universal question: Can you be both rich and blessed? Unfortunately for Manny Bloch, the answer is no. The tragic story of his downfall makes for an interesting, intense and unforgettable read.
“This is not a guide to how a family ought to live,” Cheuse said during a recent phone interview. “It is a drama about what happens when a family becomes unhinged.”
Minnie Bloch, a Jewish immigrant, is the all-knowing mother of Manny, a devout rabbi. Manny is deeply affected by his father’s death and is caught up in trying to be everything to everybody. "Prayers for the Living" depicts Manny’s struggle after he follows the advice of an oracular bird who, in the voice of his deceased father, tells Manny that he can have it all.
Manny leaves his pulpit for corporate success but only succeeds in alienating his family, except his mother who is all-forgiving. Minnie Bloch narrates the rise and fall of her only son in such a way that it leaves the reader feeling a connection to family.
“No matter how deeply criminal a child may become, his mother always has a place in her heart for him,” Cheuse said of Minnie. “She is a principle of forgiveness in a way. She is an all-knowing voice that somehow forgives everything that she tells about even as it happens. We are all flawed in that regard. If we are lucky enough, we have a mother who forgives us.”
Cheuse himself had an all-forgiving mother. His father emigrated from Russia and his mother was a second-generation American. He knew the immigrant world. Cheuse recalled his own mother, grandmother and great-grandmother would sit around the table and talk about life. This was the inspiration for the voice of Minnie.
Minnie Bloch is more than a principle of forgiveness; she is a force to be reckoned with. A single mother for most of Manny’s life, Minnie is protective of her son and readily forgives and even justifies his behavior. She often chides God because she feels her family has been dealt with unjustly but also offers a sincere prayer asking God to keep her family from harm. As the matriarch, Minnie weathers the pains of her prodigal family and is the one stable influence for them. She has the heavy task of being the heroine and the voice of reason.
“I think women are great heroes these days because they have to deal with not just what men had to deal with but they also have to perform traditional roles of being the ‘good enough mother,’ ” Cheuse said. “It takes a lot of planning, determination and a lot of strength and courage.”
Minnie is that "good enough mother" who even as her family’s lives spin out of control still loves them. The Bloch family has many flaws and although they have family values, Cheuse admits they don’t know how to implement them. Manny has an adulterous affair with a Holocaust survivor who is also a member of his congregation. His wife, Maby, who was abused as a child, has turned to alcohol, and their daughter Sarah, who calls herself Sadie, enters into a sexual relationship with a radical feminist who has ties to a justice group that is intent on destroying Manny.
Minnie’s influence enters all aspects of her family’s life. Her vibrant voice, laced with Yiddish charm, has the responsibility to tell those around her about her family. She moves effortlessly between tragedy and everyday occurrences as if it is matter of fact.
Cheuse’s idea for "Prayers for the Living" came from a New York Times article about Eli M. Black, a rabbi turned multimillionaire who committed suicide after it was uncovered that he bribed the Honduran government. As Cheuse notes in the preface of the book, “that incident stayed with me, in my mind and in my heart.” The story that he created is certainly a classical tragedy with a most tragic fall.
“That driving force that Manny lives with to be both rich and blessed is complicated,” Cheuse said. “I think it presents questions in everybody.”
"Prayers for the Living" is a frank description of the steady demise of a family. It is the family’s struggle to deal with abusive issues of the past. Some may find it difficult to read about the trials of the Bloch family. There are instances of described physical and sexual abuse, forcible sodomy, rape, incest and adultery. Sexual references, innuendo and scenes are of note. Use of alcohol and the effects are painfully described along with death and suicide. Strong language is used throughout the book, including the f-word.
Cheuse, who will be in Salt Lake for a book signing this week, also spent the winter of 1986 in Salt Lake when he wrote a memoir. For the past several years he has participated in the National Undergraduate Literature Conference at Weber State University. He will be a featured writer for this year’s 30th annual event April 1-4 along with Terry Tempest Williams, David Lee, Michael Ondaatje and Ana Castillo. See continue.weber.edu/nulc/ for additional information.
If you go ...
What: Alan Cheuse book signing
When: Saturday, April 4, 7 p.m.
Where: The King's English, 1511 S. 1500 East, Salt Lake City
Note: Places in the signing line are reserved for those who purchase a copy of the featured book from The King's English.