Meiselman is put-upon. Everything and everyone in his world is bent on humiliating and belittling him, so he plots his revenge. His day is coming. Or so he thinks. And, to Meiselman, it is only his own thoughts that count. The hero of Avner Landes’s hilarious debut novel, Meiselman: The Lean Years (Tortoise Books), is an aggravating, ridiculous being. He’s no one you’d want to know, but he’s a lot of fun to laugh at. There are even moments when the odd reader might find some of Meiselman’s shenanigans familiar, but those moments are best not admitted to. Best to keep them to oneself, or learn to do the opposite. Because if there’s a chance to get things wrong, Meiselman inevitably will. It’s his superpower.
The story begins with a slight. A former classmate, now a noted New York author, is slated to speak at the suburban Chicago library where Meiselman is the number two. Shenkenberg, the writer, is rude to Meiselman on the phone when discussing the upcoming event, which sets the assistant librarian off on a saga of reclaiming what he believes to be his scorned honor and self-respect. Along the way, he manages to estrange his devoted wife, horrify friends and coworkers, and generally flub any chance at even the most minor triumph.
The book is told in third person, but is basically our hero’s inner monologue. Yes, he thinks of himself in the third person.
Why is Meiselman always following the rules of other men? Why does he see such behavior as a requirement for decent living? When does he get to establish the arbitrary rules other men must follow?
For a man who only truly values his own opinions and feelings, Meiselman is inordinately concerned with how others see him. Ethel, his boss at the library, has taken ill and left him in charge, but everything his coworkers do is interpreted as a challenge to his authority or an attempt to usurp his power. Meiselman sees an odd glance or stray gesture as points for or against him in the imaginary abacus that is his consciousness. He is a solipsist par excellence.
Meiselman is the butt of every joke and barely tolerated by those closest to him, but somehow, I couldn’t wait to see what he’d ruin next. By grounding him in a real time and place, Landes makes the story of a small man’s comeuppance compelling. The town of New Niles, just north of Chicago, is likely a stand-in for Landes’s hometown, Skokie, Illinois. Meiselman’s ancestral allegiance to the White Sox—demonstrated by ritual morning box score checking, as well as regular TV viewing—is in line with the traditions of many local communities, as they moved from the city to the suburbs. The White Sox are his father’s team from when he lived on the south side, so they become the son’s team in the northern suburbs.
Tradition, of the Orthodox Jewish variety, is a leitmotif of the novel, setting it apart from the average new release in the fiction section of your bookstore. But that is not to say that this story will only appeal to those who live by those particular beliefs. Because this is Meiselman, his version of piety mostly consists of constantly checking to make sure that others see how correct his behavior is, in or out of shul. If he has a true religious fervor, it may be in his faithful, desperate morning checking of Frank Thomas’s stats from the night before.
Despite their shared ethnicity, religious affiliation, and hometown, Meiselman is no stand-in for his creator. Unlike the thinly-veiled proxies in the books of Philip Roth or Saul Bellow (to whose work Landes’s might be compared), Landes’s hero couldn’t be him because Meiselman is completely oblivious to how he actually comes off to others. It’s not a self-portrait because no one has the necessary distance to see themselves in this way. With Roth, especially, no matter how horrible his hero’s behavior, the reader must identify with him and justify or forgive his transgressions in order to accept the premise of the action and not want to throw the book across the room in disgust. By rendering Meiselman at a remove, Landes allows us to laugh at him, while also tucking away the occasional life lesson for later pondering. In a rare moment of actual insight, Meiselman observes that a story that starts with humiliation must end in humiliation. He has it coming and he gets it, and no one is surprised except for the man himself. v