“Right This Way”
Spuyten Duyvil Publishing, 2023
$20.00, 338 pages
Miriam Kotzin’s Right This Way is a comic novel in the Jewish tradition of Saul Bellow and Allegra Goodman, witty but brimming with existential angst, and ultimately not so “funny” after all. Think Moses Herzog; think The Family Markowitz. Kotzin’s novel involves a group of middle-aged characters who live in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, a well-to-do “second ring” suburb of Philadelphia. The protagonist is Ely Cutter, a real estate salesman who, as the story opens, sees the face of God up in the sky while he is down on his hands and knees working in his backyard garden; it’s a face that “looked like their neighbor’s terracotta garden ornament.” In his late 50’s, Ely Cutter is experiencing a midlife crisis on steroids, not just seeing God’s face up in the sky, but cheating on his wife with not one but two women. Ely is not the only character having a midlife crisis, as it turns out, though.
To be fair, Ely’s affair with Eleanor is a thing of the past, but it’s already done its damage to his marriage with Lynne, his wife of thirty-seven years. The two often quarrel, and Ely is forever apologizing, but he’s also less than honest with Lynne. Lynne does not particularly trust her husband, despite his constant reassurances.
When Ely meets Grace Cooper, a potential client, things start to get out of control. Again. Grace is a recent divorcée who is very emotional. When we learn the circumstances of her divorce (“a bad remake of a Greek tragedy,” she calls it), we understand why. Grace develops an obsession with Ely, more than a simple “crush.” “This Grace of yours,” Lynne says to Ely, “she seems like a bunny boiler,” a reference to the movie Fatal Attraction in which a woman comes home to find her daughter’s pet rabbit boiling in a pot on the stove. Glenn Close plays the bunny-boiler, a woman obsessed with a man (Michael Douglas) with whom she’d had an affair. It’s his daughter’s bunny. Or, as Ely’s buddy Sam describes Grace, she’s a “firecracker.” How can Ely resist?
It’s all very complicated and gossipy, in the way the suburban grapevine works. In no time, Ely’s “vision” is an item of gossip. Did it really happen? What was it like? Ely feels as though he’s regarded as an oddity. The same happens when he gets involved with Grace, showing her houses she might put a bid on. His wife Lynne’s cousin Ruth’s friend Joanne, a part-time realtor, encounters Ely and Grace (she’s trying to sell Grace’s house) in a hysterically compromising position while Ely is conferring with Grace – and Grace is coming on to Ely. The women comment on Ely’s behavior, and word always comes back to Lynne – who is suspicious of her husband after his affair with Eleanor.
When Ruth’s husband Sam describes Grace as a “firecracker,” while he and Ruth are at the Cutters’ house for dinner, Ely is (not necessarily so innocently) curious what he means by that, but he knows he cannot ask Sam because Sam will tell his wife Ruth, who will in turn report to Ely’s wife Lynne – not to mention Joanne, who is married to Ruth’s cousin. Complicated!
But Sam is the one person Ely does ultimately feel he can confide in, especially after Ely discovers that Sam himself had a fling with Grace in the distant past. When they meet, they compare notes on Grace, and in the end – but I don’t want to give away the end, except to say that Sam is very supportive of his friend.
Ely and Lynne were high school sweethearts. They are childless, but after several miscarriages, Lynne finally conceived a son, after they’d given up, not unlike Sarah’s pregnancy in Genesis; only, their son, likewise named Isaac, died in his crib at the age of three months. This, too, has a poisoning effect on their marriage. They light candles on Isaac’s yahrzeit, but there’s an obvious pall over that aspect of their marriage. In many ways their marriage is front and center to the plot, its arc, their fate.
At one point, when Ely gets a call from a wrong number, a voice that says, “Hey, Dad, it’s me,” a voice that sounded like it was from somebody who would have been Isaac’s age, had he lived, he is again beset with the ineffable. (In the wake of his vision, Ely has already started routinely reciting the Jewish blessings over food and drink.) The voice goes on to apologize, “Look, I’m sorry. Really.” What does it mean? There is never a simple explanation.
Ely the salesman has elevated his sales techniques into an art of deception. Indeed, while he has broken up with Eleanor long ago, after his “vision,” Eleanor gets in touch with him and they arrange to meet at Barnes & Noble, for an innocent coffee. After making the date, Eleanor hangs up the phone. “‘Good, I’ll see you then,’ she said and left him wondering what lie he’d tell Lynne.” Lying is always Ely’s first resort. Later, it turns out Lynne had seen them together at Barnes & Noble, which Ely again tries to weasel around in his explanation. Besides, he is already getting in deep with Grace by then.
Often, Jewish style, the characters speak to each other in riddles. Answer a question with a question. Deception makes this necessary, of course. When Ely talks to Lynne about the message from the wrong number, he is “careful to stop short of telling her about Sam.” He tells himself he is sparing her, doesn’t want to anger her or “hurt her feelings,” but it’s symptomatic of his impulse to lie and deceive, to be evasive. Very occasionally, Ely will concede to himself that he is shitty to his wife, a fleeting flight of conscience, the mere recognition of which seems to square Ely with his own moral sense – as if he’s a good guy after all.
Why Right This Way? It’s the kind of thing a waiter or a guide might say, or a real estate salesman, showing someone the way to their seat, or to their destiny. Who has the luck? Or do we make our luck, as Lynne speculates to Ely. “She shook her head. ‘I said maybe we make our own luck. You said something different. You’d like to think that we make our own happiness.’”
Which leads us back to the question, Whose midlife crisis is this, anyway? More than one character must come to terms with the time they have remaining. Take your pick. But the end to this remarkable, complex, sometimes whimsically comic novel will surprise you.
Charles Rammelkamp is Prose Editor for BrickHouse Books in Baltimore. His latest poetry collection, A Magician Among the Spirits, poems about Harry Houdini, is a 2022 Blue Light Press Poetry winner and has just been published.Another poetry collection entitled Transcendence has also just been published by BlazeVOX Books. A collection of flash fiction, Presto!, will be published in 2023 by Bamboo Dart Press.