When Amy Bloom ’75 reads to a gathered audience, she speaks so quickly her words seem to fly past the listener. Everyone in attendance knits their brow and ponders, and those with the best concentration fall right into her world. Those that do are in for a treat: “Away,” her new novel, is a vivid and captivating ride, a colorful portrait of early Yiddish theater that doesn’t skimp on startling plot twists and dense political commentary. As historical novels go, it’s packed with the fruits of her research.
“I was researching Yiddish lullabies, and most of them went a lot like this one: ’I lost my youth like a gambler with a bad hand of cards,’” she said.
All of the chapter titles in “Away” are taken from Yiddish lullabies; its first chapter, “And Lost There, a Golden Feather in a Foreign, Foreign Land,” introduces us to her shy and expatriate heroine. Lillian Leyb is lost and alone in New York, and her only hope of an income is sewing work at Brooklyn’s Goldfadn Theatre. Meyer Burstein, the star of the Theatre, asks her out; soon the two become lovers. One night, in the middle of an August heat wave, he tells her to stay in their apartment and leaves in search of male lovers. For the entire evening she preps for his return, cooking an elaborate dinner and donning a frilly nightgown. He never comes back. Instead his father, a well-connected businessman who Lillian barely knows, appears at her door with an odious plan of his own.
“His father set down a towel so his come wouldn’t drip on the sheets,” said Charlie Weiss ’09. “For obvious reasons, that really jumped out at me.”
For Sara Rowe ’08, it was Bloom’s tales of her days as a little girl hostess that left the most lasting impression.
“It was amazing to think of this little girl, only about eight or nine, serving whiskey sours to old women with makeup caked on their faces,” she said.
When asked why she cycled through so many different perspectives, Bloom commented on her role as omniscient narrator.
“I thought of all the characters as central,” she said. “When you try for a God-like perspective, you need to describe everyone. Lillian was the main story, but everyone else had their own. It’s like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern: they were minor actors in the story of Hamlet, but their own story was another hundred pages.”
Most of the questions she fielded dealt with issues of craft. She reveled in the cathartic act of research, which she called “faux-writing,” and said it allows her “to walk through endless images until one of them rings a bell.” When asked whether one could teach creative writing, she said that while it is possible to teach one to craft a sentence, talent is up to the gods.
“You can’t make someone gifted,” she said.
As for her time at Wesleyan, Bloom recalled the hours she spent in Olin.
“Wesleyan gave me a lot of opportunities to read,” she said. “That was a great contribution.”