- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 13, 2004


By David Grossman

Translated by Vered Almog and Maya Gurantz

Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $24, 343 pages


When I think of the Israeli writer David Grossman, the word that keeps springing to my mind is “humanist.” It is, perhaps, a rather imprecise word, a term with many possible meanings, and it could certainly be applied to any number of writers.

Still, what we tend to mean when we say “humanist” is someone for whom it is of paramount importance to believe that, in the long run, humanity’s innate potential for good outweighs its potential for evil.

And the humanist, as distinguished from the simple optimist, is also someone who has made it his business to become acquainted with the night. The humanist’s humanism is thus not a given, but something hard won.

Mr. Grossman’s latest novel, “Someone to Run With,” has two equally central characters, a boy and a girl, who live in Jerusalem. Sixteen-year-old Assaf is shy, serious, and ill-at-ease. He spends most of his evenings on the Internet, which is quite understandable, given the fact that his so-called friends — who are shallow, glib, and hence more socially self-confident than he — treat him in a manner that is bossy and condescending.

This summer, while his parents are away visiting his older sister, Reli, in America, Assaf has a boring job working for the city. One day, his boss sends him on an errand to find the owner of a stray Labrador, in order to return the dog to its master or mistress and collect a fine for letting it off its leash. Assaf’s mission is to give the dog its lead and see where it takes him.

Unbeknownst to Assaf, the owner of the dog is a 16-year-old girl called Tamar. Mr. Grossman tells us her story as well, alternating with Assaf’s.

A talented singer studying classical music, Tamar has given up the opportunity to go on a summer trip to Italy to perform with the rest of her classmates in order to embark on a risky and difficult mission: to rescue Shai, a gifted young guitarist who has become addicted to heroin and disappeared into the underworld.

As resourceful as she is determined, Tamar has actually fitted out a cave with the supplies she anticipates will be needed when she brings him there to go cold turkey. But first she has to find him, and to do that she, too, must disappear into the underworld of street performers.

It is hard to accurately assess an author’s writing style when glimpsed only dimly through the cloudy glass of translation, but it’s plain to see Mr. Grossman’s skill as a storyteller. “Someone to Run With” is an involving novel, full of drama and suspense.

It is peopled with interesting, well-drawn characters, most notably Theodora, a strange and delightful Greek nun who leads a hermit-like existence awaiting the arrival of pilgrims who never come. (I was sorry not to see more of her.)

Mr. Grossman is even adept at rendering the “personality” of the dog, Dinka, paying full attention to her intelligence and perceptiveness without falling into the trap of overly humanizing her.

His greatest strength, however, is taking us into the minds of his two leading characters as they navigate the shoals and depths of that always difficult passage, adolescence, at this particular time in history when the plague of drug abuse has been added to the already-potent brew of dangers.

Independently, Assaf and Tamar have been pursuing similar quests: Each feels estranged from his or her school-friends, each has been wondering if people can be trusted and if the world is a good or an evil place.

When they finally meet up with one another, and with Shai, the drug-addicted guitarist, these issues come to the fore.

A sizable chunk of the novel involves Tamar’s stay at a “home” for runaway street performers run by a hoodlum. This bizarre enterprise sounds like an updated version of Fagin’s school for pickpockets in “Oliver Twist.”

One hesitates to say that it strains credulity: For all one knows, there really is such a place, but whatever the case, the scenes at the home lack the conviction and power of the rest of the story.

There are also several intriguing secondary characters, including the aforementioned nun and Tamar’s stalwart older friend Leah, a professional cook who seems to be the survivor of some unspecified kind of abusive relationship.

Assaf’s and Tamar’s families are also described, but one feels there’s more to those stories than we’re given here. Mr. Grossman may have chosen to truncate these potential story-lines so as not to detract attention from his hero and heroine or to impede the momentum of the central action, but the lack is still there.

For readers familiar with Mr. Grossman’s nonfiction and his political stance as a dove, it may be interesting to note a certain touch of skepticism in Assaf’s reaction to an abandoned village:

“He assumed it was a deserted Arab village whose inhabitants had fled during the War of Independence (according to Rhino). Or were cruelly banished (Reli) … those endless debates between Rhino and Reli … Reli muttered that every deserted village like this was an open wound in the heart of Israeli society; and Rhino would patiently respond that if it had been the other way around, then her house would look like this, and which did she prefer?”

Assaf’s arty sister Reli is a jewelry designer; Rhino, her devoted fiance, a stand-up guy if ever there was one, has gone into metalwork to help her career. But Reli, who’s visiting America, is thinking of relocating there, where, as it happens, she’s met a new man. (Dickens might have had Rhino marry the down-to-earth Leah instead.)

Although Tamar and Assaf are both immensely appealing young people — honest, sensitive, caring, thoughtful, resilient, and resourceful — Mr. Grossman paints a rather depressing picture of Israeli youth, depressing because it is all too familiar.

The kids Tamar meets in the course of her career as a street performer could be the kids she’d meet in many cities all over the world: disaffected, confused, full of half-baked notions about Art and its entitlements.

They sit around singing anti-war songs bemoaning the fact that they have to serve in the army, including one song that expresses their distaste for Theodore Herzl’s whole enterprise. For those of us who remember “Exodus” (the novel by Leon Uris or Otto Preminger’s movie made from it), it certainly seems that Israeli society has changed a lot since those days.

Shai, the guitar-player, epitomizes this new attitude, which, of course, is anything but new:

“He would speak and swing his arms and bubble over, quoting all kinds of philosophers she didn’t know, talk about ‘noble egoism’ and describe how, ultimately, every person acts only according to his absolute selfishness. It was like that, even in relationships between parents and children, even in love, and he wouldn’t leave until he forced her to admit he was right … Sometimes … she [Tamar] had the feeling that these thoughts had succeeded in leaking into her like poison.”

Not surprisingly, Shai resists Tamar’s plan to wean him off drugs and can’t stop whining about what she’s doing to his genius: “And now he would never be able to play again the way he did when he was using, only God and Jim Morrison felt that way, and he’d had it, and now it was gone.”

Shai’s embarrassingly self-important and unoriginal rantings speak for themselves, but they have, as Tamar feels, somewhat “poisoned” her mind.

Her new friend Assaf proves to be the antidote. He, too, has thought about such things, and has come to a deeper understanding of human nature that would delight any humanist.

Here, as in such earlier novels as “See Under: LOVE,” “The Zigzag Kid” and “The Book of Intimate Grammar,” Mr. Grossman demonstrates his affinity for adolescents — and his outstanding ability to get into their minds.

The questions they ask themselves, the problems they face, and the ways in which they come to understand the world and their relationship to it are qualities that render these young people relevant to readers of all ages.

Merle Rubin is a writer in Pasadena, Calif.

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