cover image The Jew of New York: A Historical Romance

The Jew of New York: A Historical Romance

Ben Katchor. Pantheon Books, $20 (97pp) ISBN 978-0-375-40104-6

Much as he does in his acclaimed comic strip Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer, Katchor uses the intricacies of urban social life to create a dense, whimsically inventive portrait-in-comics of New York City, this time at the dawn of the capitalist age. The work opens in 1830 as the New World Theater prepares its production of an anti-Semitic comedy titled The Jew of New York, a ""burlesque"" of the life of the putative founder of the first Jewish state (very likely, a shady land deal) on an uninhabited island in upstate New York. Katchor's ingeniously meandering tale uses multiple, overlapping story lines to illustrate aspects of urban and frontier life. Characters overlap, pass each other and return in a rich stew of hucksterism, scientific idealism and trashy popular culture that fancifully recreates the advent of a new mercantile age. Katchor's freewheeling imagination conjures a 19th-century utopian community of air worshippers called Free Oxygenators; a Native American named Elim-min-nopee, who orates in perfect Hebrew for 25 cents admission; and a businessman, Francis Oriole, who is obsessed with the medicinal properties of soda water and has a bizarre scheme to carbonate Lake Erie. History, fantasy and Jewish mysticism ferment in this comic social atmosphere, related with Katchor's wry humor, deadpan equilibrium and poetic verisimilitude. His b&w drawings are brisk and expressive but also quite precise, and they work in combination with the text to produce a singularly captivating fictional portrait of 19th-century Americana. Rights: The Wylie Agency. (Jan.)