Every author dreams of wooing Michiko Kakutani, senior book critic of The New York Times, but perhaps none has done so as directlyand brilliantlyas Leslie Epstein in his latest novel, Ice Fire Water. Epstein's new trio of tales continues the saga of erudite protagonist, Leib GoldkornHolocaust survivor, master flautist, and graduate of the Akademie für Musik, Philosophie, und darstellende Künst who just happens to have an ardent crush on the redoubtable Ms. Kakutani. Really.
Leslie Epstein, whose widely acclaimed King of the Jews is now a classic of Holocaust literature, introduced Goldkorn almost a quarter-century ago in the story "The Steinway Quintet," and then later in Goldkorn Tales, which included an expanded version of the original story plus two more novellas. Like Goldkorn Tales, Ice Fire Water is an intricately woven triptych of long stories counterbalancing a dark history with ironic humor. This collection, however, subtitled "A Leib Goldkorn Cocktail," sends our hero on misadventures of lust and longing that are every bit as absurd as they are profound.
Equipped with a seemingly magical Rudall & Rose flute, the young and idealistic Goldkorn goes through an epic punctuated by hapless attempts to stage his opera "Esther: A Jewish Girl in a Persian Court," a rhyming opus that he hoped would force the world to harken to the dawn of Hitler's tyranny in Europe. As in his most recent novel, Pandaemonium, which reanimated film legend Peter Lorre as its protagonist, Epstein steals a cast of characters from Hollywood's Golden Age to appear as Goldkorn's leading ladies. In "Ice," Goldkorn attempts to insert his "Esther" score into a film featuring Sonja Henie, the Olympian ice dancer he fancied to rescue from the grasp of Hitler. In "Fire," he mistakenly stows away in a ship aboard which Carmen Miranda and Toscanini are entangled in an insidious plot to win Brazilian allegiance to the Third Reich. "Water" casts Goldkorn into the South Seas for a serendipitous dip in boiling water with a true "Esther"Esther Williams. It is a license the reader willingly grants Epstein, for these are the characters that populate his imagination. His father and uncle, Philip and Julius Epstein, were a legendary duo of Hollywood screenwriters who penned many classics of the silver screen, including "Casablanca."
For all his bravado, these tableaux are recounted by the Goldkorn we meet in the opening pages: Clad in Thom McAnn's, trademark Bulova watch, and with size 44-gabardines around his ankles, he celebrates his 94th birthday with an attempt to masturbatean exercise, mind you, he permits only as a preventative health measure. Remaining true to the book's tongue-in-cheek subtitle, "A Leib Goldkorn Cocktail," driven by "a distinct peppercorn feeling" in his nether regions, or sheer foolhardy and lustful heroism, Goldkorn navigates the reader through a fluid network of narrative tunnels, between past and present, remembered glory and present-day delusions. While far from a cad (he only admits to having achieved penetration oncein 1942), he delights in the stirrings of his libido and follows it wherever it leads. In particular, he has high hopes for Michiko Kakutani, who once praised his memoir, "Goldkorn Tales" (copies of which now clutter his apartment in stacks from floor to ceiling), and who he is convinced is a blond-haired Finn. The reader can only wonder at the reviews Ice Fire Water will receive after Goldkorn makes woo to his "lovelorn Laplander," his "hellion from Helsinki," in a letter proclaiming, "There is no need to restrict our intercourse to dry and dusty books. What young man, bursting with vigor, reads these days Washington Irving or Anatole France? My expertise is on woodwinds. The day may come when, reaching about the torso, I might instruct you upon the fingering of the flute."
At times indulgently humorous (in a case of mistaken identity, he cries out, "Kakutani!& Let us have a coition!"), his eroticism also betrays the loneliness, sorrow, and profound guilt of a man haunted by a darkened past, the legacy of which binds his lust to agony. Epstein brilliantly characterizes Goldkorn's masochistic struggle through one of his many "inamorata," found in the back pages of the holiday issue of Hustler: Miss Crystal Knight, a 40-year-old prostitute bound in chains and leather. Her name, of course, intones the horror of Kristallnacht and Leib's memories of the 1938 Nazi raid in Berlin, imposing dark meaning on typical bawdy tag lines for 1-900 ads: "You'll be my prisoner" and "Expect no mercy from Crystal Knight!" But Leib's obsession with her is also a desire for punishment, the profound longings of a deeply wounded conscience that are played out in phone sex (analogous to war, "If you aren't man enough for me, or aren't 18, hang up now") and role-playing in which Crystal is sometimes a prisoner of the Nazis, and he sometimes the rescuer, sometimes the victim. In near-climax of agony and ecstasy, he cries out, "Why am I living? That is what is detestable. That is the disgrace." Goldkorn is plagued by the question of the Holocaust survivor: Why, of all the Jews who perished in Europe, does he live?
Although the dark truths present in all of Leslie Epstein's work are inescapable, Ice Fire Water is nevertheless a comedy of manners, a hilarious collision of prudishness with lascivious temptation, a touching depiction of Old World culture in the midst of modern mayhem. And in true Epstein style, the tales sparkle with cameo appearances, among them Spike Lee, George Stephanopoulos, and Puff Daddy. A musical, whimsical dervish of deliriously alliterative and utterly delightful prose, Ice Fire Water expertly summons the power of art to give ease to an ailing soul, whether it flows in music from Leib Goldkorn's Rudall & Rose flute or Leslie Epstein's pen. We can only hope Michiko Kakutani feels the same way.
About Leslie EpsteinSee more books from this Author
Leib Goldkorn--Vienna-born Jew, professional flautist and earnest rou returning from Epstein's The Steinway Quartet--turns 94 as he narrates this wise, heroically funny novel on a frigid fall morningOct 04 1999 | Read Full Review of Ice Fire Water: Three Tales o...