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Mobile Mensch 

Mobile, Ala., in the first half of the 20th century ... have an image in your head? Corn liquor and Klansmen? Hog farms and holy rollers? A world of blacks and whites united only by their down-home drawl and their common suspicion of papists and Jews?

Try a Romanian Jewish store owner, a Cuban Catholic cigar roller, a Lebanese defender of Turkish cigarettes, and a panoply of other unusual suspects standing together smoking on Dauphin Street and later trading bawdy multilingual puns and tongue-twisters over rose-petal wine. Not a joke, this, too, is Mobile in Roy Hoffman's Chicken Dreaming Corn (University of Georgia Press).

The novel centers on Morris Kleinman and his family, Jewish refugees from Romania who struggle to live the American Dream running a clothing (and later furniture) store along the same street that hosts parades of Confederate veterans and hooded Klansmen, the street that rallies the men to two World Wars, the street kicked up to dust during the starving times of the Great Depression.

Chicken Dreaming Corn (the title is a Southern-inflected translation of a Romanian aphorism about ordinary people who long for something special) also has a substantial subplot about the Cuban Catholic family of Pablo Pastor that briefly boards with the Kleinmans, making of the communal dinner table an intermingling of chili peppers, butter beans and beet soup, all wrapped in the incanted blessings of Yahweh and Dios.

Prayers in a rivalry of languages drift on the Gulf breeze.

Betty Green, an evangelical Christian who trades comforts with Morris in the local cemetery, invites Morris to her church to sell his furniture. As he walks along a road lined with churches, he hears God spoken of by preachers whose voices are "stark and mournful in one church, bright-white and jubilant in another, thick and tall as the rafters in another." At Betty Green's church, they speak in tongues: "Not Hebrew, Yiddish, Polish, Romanian, Russian, Serbian, Slavic, German, Swedish, or French, the voices of the congregants rise up, one after the other, in babble Morris has never before heard. Is it Japanese, Korean, Polynesian, Chinese? Is it of this earth, or some other?"

And so with Mobile, so with America: a riot of religions, languages and cultures in which Morris tries to preserve his faith while joining in the wildly diverse community in which he has made a home for his family. He calls America his Jerusalem, even as he watches Atlanta tempt away one of his sons with money while pleasure tempts the other to New Orleans, "where speakeasies were on every corner and the clarinets were jumping, making old country klezmer sound like a dry whistle while your mouth felt like one too."

There is nothing so simple here as the tired cultural cop-out about us all being the same underneath our differences, and some of the common ground Hoffman reveals is far from comforting. When the Klan burns down a successful black farmer's farm, Morris remembers the economic warfare waged on Jews in Romania. One Klansman, injured in the attack, seeks out a black dentist to heal his broken mouth, needing the expertise of the very people he wants to chase out of the South. Evangelical Christians accuse Morris of profiting from Jesus' death when he holds a Good Friday sale, and Betty Green's church members, repeatedly delinquent on the bills for their furniture, accuse him of taking money from the poor.

Morris tries hard to understand the faiths and practices of the many peoples of Mobile -- he is more open-minded with others than he is with his own family, in fact -- but while he learns to appreciate the good and holy to be found in other faiths, some differences defy his comprehension. How can the evangelicals hold God so arrogantly close without going blind? What good is a Catholic priest's promise of reuniting with his dead friend in the afterlife when he must travel the world of the living without him? And, after World War II, "What Creator of the World would be so callous as to turn His back on a million children throughout Europe who'd one evening sat lighting Sabbath candles in loving homes and the next were shunted into cattle cars for trips to Buchenwald and Bergen-Belsen and Treblinka?"

Hoffman's reverberations of Romania and Alabama (with side trips to New Orleans and Atlanta) whisper the ancient continuities transplanted to Southern ground, seeking sustenance in the unfamiliar red clay soil. For Southern fiction, these are familiar stories -- some tragic, some sublime -- with an unusual cast of characters. For Jewish fiction, these are familiar characters in unaccustomed tales. Though Hoffman stays outside their hearts overlong, the music of their many languages and the comforts, charges and corruptions of their faiths make for a wonderfully complex song of the South.

click to enlarge Roy Hoffman's reverberations of Romania and Alabama whisper the ancient continuities transplanted to Southern ground in Chicken Dreaming Corn.
  • Roy Hoffman's reverberations of Romania and Alabama whisper the ancient continuities transplanted to Southern ground in Chicken Dreaming Corn.
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