cover image The Here and Now

The Here and Now

Robert Cohen, Author Scribner Book Company $21.5 (0p) ISBN 978-0-684-81561-9

When worldly, cynical Sam Karnish meets a Hasidic couple, Aaron and Magda Brenner, on an airplane, it precipitates a brainy comedy about what matters in life. At first, it's a first-class case of culture clash. But the Brenners soon insinuate themselves into Sam's life-Aaron with sheer pushiness, Magda through sexually charged glances. The truth is that Sam's life, as he keeps reminding himself, is a mess: he's 36 and divorced; he's going nowhere with his current girlfriend; his job as a roving editor at a downsizing New York City magazine is in peril; and his softball manager is benching him. The Brenners prove a welcome distraction. Aaron turns out to be a pot-smoking ex-hippie, and Magda, who has spent all her 24 years within the Hasidic community of Crown Heights, Brooklyn, is not at all as she appears. Cohen (The Organ Builder) does a tremendous job here of making a subculture vital and real. Narrator Sam is supercilious, at once arrogant and needy, savvy and at sea in the world. He is, as others call him, both a fool and a mensch. And sometimes he's thicker than lead, as when a girlfriend's abortion (he didn't even know she was pregnant) causes less existential panic than the fact that he's been left off the starting lineup. But before he knows it, Sam is dangling out a window in another man's clothing, risking his future, his principles and even his life for Magda. By the end of the novel, Sam, who's only half Jewish, makes a pilgrimage to Israel to find both the departed Magda and his own better self, which even he admits may be only hypothetical. As for where Cohen stands in the clash between secularism and faith, this world and the sacred one, the title tips his hand. But he writes with enough suppleness that he manages to invest Sam's spiritual yearning with both gravity and comic desperation. (Feb.)