cover image Scum


Isaac Bashevis Singer. Farrar Straus Giroux, $19.95 (218pp) ISBN 978-0-374-25511-4

Written two decades ago but never before published in English, this culturally rich but oddly uninvolving novel features a typical Singer protagonist, caught in the dichotomy between the dictates of religion and his sensual nature. ``Scum'' refers both to 47-year-old Max Barabander and the Jewish underworld of Warsaw to which he returns in 1906 after a 23-year absence. In Buenos Aires, where he had fled as a juvenile delinquent to make his fortune, his 17-year-old son has just died, leading to his wife's breakdown and his impotence. His trip, at once a pathetic attempt at ``rejuvenation'' and a response to a midlife crisis, results in his disastrous involvement with four women: Tsirele, a poor rabbi's daughter; Reyzl, mistress of the local gang leader, who nets him in a scheme to import prostitutes to Buenos Aires; their first target, Basha, a servant girl; and the clairvoyant Madame Theresa. Hating himself for these deceitful liaisons, Max resolves to flee, but in the process he accidentally shoots one of the women, thus ending as he began, a convict. Max's existential dilemma often seems contrived, and fans of Nobel Prize winner Singer, while relishing the redolent atmosphere of the Warsaw Jewish community and the colorful old world Yiddish culture, may be disappointed by the story's failure to convince. (Apr.)