In this new novel by West Stockbridge author Marshall Jon Fisher, the principal character is an American-Jewish novelist living in the 1980s without any idea of how to write his novel. So for the entirety of "A Backhanded Gift", he pretends that he's writing a novel when there is no novel for him to write.
Instead, he teaches tennis in Munich, Germany, to Jews who survived the horrors of World War II and/or their offspring, all of whom are either content to remain in Germany or comfortable to be with their parents in Germany.
The novelist is Robert Cherney and he is comfortable in Germany because of the escape it affords him from the fantasy lover he has never escaped and the all-too-real successful writer he knew who is only a character here in retrospect.
For nearly 400 pages, this non-writing writer examines his own inability, his need for privacy and secrecy, his misapplied talent for the sport of tennis, his limited capability with friendship, and his lightly mocking attitude toward the women he knows.
Author Fisher, according to a biographical note, spent time in Munich doing what Cherney does in the book. It is clear that he knows the place and the period, although, with the exception of some reflections on the war and its aftermath, the period feels about as contemporary as possible. The people he interacts with feel quite genuine, including a hippy he and his best friend, Max, meet in the Buenos Aires airport.
The Argentine "pick-up" is one of the most genuine sequences in the book. The awkward relationship between Cherney and Max comes to a head here and the girl is an integral key to the curious misunderstandings of their friendship. This begins on page 290, just in time to save book from being about the dreariness of a man unable to cope with his own realities.
Fisher has a peculiar style of writing. While the book is presented in the third person and from a distance, there are odd moments when we are taken into the brain of Robert Cherney to share his inner experiences and thoughts.
The arms-distance sense is gone for a moment and the book takes on some life, some verve. It is as though Fisher realized his book would be better if we could see only what Robert Cherney sees and feels -- and it would be. But Fisher couldn't bring himself to tell the tale that way for fear some astute reader might assume this to be as much a memoir as it is a fiction.
Whether or not the people in "A Backhanded Gift" are real or fictional, the truth is that a book about a man who can't write a book would be better if seen that way.
Whether the time with his American muse, Lexa, or his German-based Polish friend Angelique or with Max, or with any of the other people Cherney meets could be improved if we could see them as he did is, of course, debatable. And that is not the book Fisher has written.
But those glimpses into their eyes and minds and hearts from within Cherney are wonderful while the more distanced and analytical presentations leave us sadly out of the emotional loop.
Neither a tennis story, nor a story of realized or unrealized dreams of a creative nature, "A Backhanded Gift" leaves us without an ending we can live with.
The final wrap-up is painless, predictable and sadly without even a sense of response or reaction from the character most directly involved.
It is, for me, a symbol of all that is wrong with this novel.