The Old Religion

David Mamet, Author Free Press $23.5 (288p) ISBN 978-0-684-84119-9
A master of masculine dialogue who finds power struggles, humor and poetry in the way ordinary guys shoot the breeze, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Mamet tends to stumble when he forces his men (or the women around them) to take on issues bigger than the next promotion, the latest scam, the scramble for respect and self-reliance. Yet even his less successful works--like this overly philosophical historical novel based on the 1915 murder trial of Leo Frank, a Jew, in Atlanta--have a certain undeniable attraction: there is only one source of Mametese, and fans can't help but welcome every addition to the canon. Replaying a familiar Mamet theme, the novel subjects an assimilated Jew to the hidden ferocity of his anti-Semitic neighbors after a gentile woman is murdered in the pencil factory that he owns. Exposing the fragility of the Jew's place in a Christian society through a series of conversations and interior monologues (which tend more to the abstractly philosophical and religious than to the political), Mamet clearly hopes to write with the force of parable, but by straining for parallels between 1915 Georgia and the present-day problems of Jewish assimilation, he weakens the force of his material. And he is a reluctant historian, whose protagonists admire crystal from ""Czechoslovakia"" three years before the country existed and--in matters of race and sex--think and talk like Joe Mantegna in his most enlightened roles. Indeed, Mamet's petit bourgeois Jews show all the softhearted sophistication of late 20th-century intellectuals--overimpressed with their own musings on fate, faith and the human condition but somehow untouched by the turn-of-the-century bigotry that surrounds them. This is heroic history, and the heroes look suspiciously like their gifted, meditative but undisciplined creator. (Oct.)
Reviewed on: 09/29/1997
Release date: 10/01/1997
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