Friday, June 20, 2014

By Hope Callahan

Listen: Jonathan Blum reading | June 16, 2014

On Monday night I had the pleasure of attending Jonathan Blum’s reading at Prairie Lights Bookstore. An alumnus of UCLA and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Blum was in town to teach and participate in the Iowa Summer Writing Festival. The second floor of the store was packed, and half of the seats filled with teenagers sporting the tell-tale light blue lanyard of the Iowa Young Writers' Studio. I settled into my back row seat, the only one left (though I showed up five minutes early), and thumbed Blum’s slender, paper-back volume.

Last Word details the intricacies of one father/son relationship, between an esteemed reconstructive surgeon and his thirteen year old, with tenderness and brutality. Told in first person from the father’s point of view, Last Word does not skirt around the painful disconnect between the two protagonists. Thirteen year old Eric is doughy, awkward, and constantly glued to his computer. Even away from the screen, the teen mumbles his speech in abbreviations and code, ever widening the communication gap. Much of the story focuses on language and its inadequacy – both parties (father and son) attempt to communicate, but too often they are speaking two different languages. The title, Blum explained, points to the impossibility of anyone having the last word, though throughout the story both Eric and his father Kip try fiercely to reach it.

Blum read the first twelve pages of the story, with the audience laughing intermittently. In the post reading Q & A session, when asked about the wry and incisive humor that characterizes the narrator’s voice, Blum responded that he “never intended to write a funny book.”  And the novel’s themes are deathly serious – the isolation of a young man, his father’s inability to properly interpret that isolation, the resulting maelstrom, etc. – but Blum acknowledges and explores the dichotomy that all good writers do: that the tragic and the absurd can, and do, exist simultaneously. When three girls in Eric’s grade snub him at his bar mitzvah, it is heartbreaking, but Kip’s reaction is overly protective to the point of hilarity. Kip lists, with acerbic disdain, the names of the three girls, their parents’ professions, what they had said, and their preferred entrée options for the post-bar mitzvah meal (two chose chicken, the other, salmon).

Judaism plays a large role in the story. Eric is enrolled in a conservative Jewish day school with such classes as Israel Interconnectedness. Kip never fails to notice the proverbs that adorn the walls of the school on his multiple visits for Eric’s disciplinary meetings. Blum grew up in a Jewish community and his portrayal of the community in which Eric and his family live is very strong. Each passing character that gets one or two lines of speech -- even some who don’t -- is fully fleshed out, which is doubly impressive considering the brevity of the story at large – it is roughly one hundred pages. The portrayal of Eric, especially, is convincing to a chilling degree. Blum said that he tried to stick to writing things that were constant and Eric’s type is one of those things. “There will always be angry kids,” Blum said, shrugging his shoulders, “There always have been.”

Jonathan Blum grew up in Miami. His stories have been published in Green Mountains Review, Gulf Coast, New York Stories, Playboy, and elsewhere. He lives in Los Angeles. Last Word is available through Rescue Press, or at your local bookstore.