Isaac Hooker is the firstborn son from a mismatched marriage of a bookish, pipe smoking, poetry loving man and a scrappy catty white-trash woman. Isaac has a genius intellect housed in a fat, slovenly, near-sighted, deaf-in-one-ear body, a “village idiot” who looked like “he ought to be institutionalized at the state’s expense.” Not your garden variety protagonist.
Isaac at fifteen was a sight at once comical and a little alarming. Blond shag standing on end, mouth a crimson popsicle, fat knees popping through his dungarees, he looked like a baby swelled up to man size, a parade-day float–a rubescent child-giant whose bobbing head and gesticulating limbs expressed a kind of runny, overflowing, ludicrously hopeful joy, self-importance, a desperation both to dominate and to be loved.
The first part of Isaac’s story has many paeans to the joys of reading, to an appetite for learning.
And this broad scattering of [literary] wealth, this hoarding of precious objects in remote places, is what has secured the preservation and transmission of learning. The earliest extant scrolls of Isaiah and the Psalms survived because a small community of malcontents decided to leave Roman-occupied Jerusalem and live in caves i the desert. Bishop Wulfstan lived in Yorkshire in the eleventh century and by sheer longevity and isolation is said single-handedly to have ensured that English prose outlived the Norman Conquest. You can lament the homogenization of contemporary life, with every hamlet sprouting the same franchises, and local dialects and costume melting into a bland uniformity, but look closer and see the secret richness, the ineradicable quirks.
Surely some of you can relate to the marking of time by your reading (for me the summer of 1986 is the Summer of Dostoyevsky):
He marked his calendar by his reading as his neighbors marked time by sickness and natural disaster; they knew the winter of ’68 as the year the McCormick’s house burned down and Frank Olszewski was killed in Vietnam. Sam knew it as the season he read The Charterhouse of Parma in a fit of such caught exultation he could hardly breathe.
I can just about guarantee that the prose in Isaac and His Devils is three notches above whatever you are reading right now. Eberstadt’s sentences are well-crafted, a joy to read. I am smitten when an author can express something I’ve felt but have never articulated. A sense of recognition and delight in having words to describe that circumstance or feeling. Not only does Eberstadt write well, she writes with the knowledge base of a classicist. [addendum: Eberstadt’s grandfather is Ogden Nash; at 16 she worked in Andy Warhol’s factory; she studied at Oxford.]
But the storyline took a turn – a liaison between a teacher and a student – that turned me off. And what I consider a potentially great novel petered out.
Why did I read this? George Grant, one of my favorite book reviewers, caught my attention with these words:
Fernanda Eberstadt, in her brilliant coming-of-age novel, Isaac and His Devils, captured this sentiment: “Humility has a dank and shameful smell to the worldly, the scent of failure, lowliness, and obscurity.”
I have never come across another reference to this author or this book. I’m willing to read more by her. I’m satisfied to have the quotes written in my journal, but this is not a book I plan to keep or re-read.