cover image The Bacon Fancier: Four Tales

The Bacon Fancier: Four Tales

Alan Isler. Viking Books, $21.95 (208pp) ISBN 978-0-670-87407-1

"" `Whoever hath anything fixed in his person that doth induce contempt,' says Sir Francis, `hath also a perpetual spur in himself to rescue and deliver himself from scorn.' "" So muses the title character in Isler's impressive first collection of short stories (after his praised novels, The Prince of West End Avenue and Kraven Images). Violin-maker Ben Cardoza, quoting his idol Francis Bacon, elucidates the central theme of Isler's fiction, one that the novelist returns to here with sensitivity and insight: the Jewish experience in the gentile world. Isler's Jews live in emotionally and physically dangerous environments. Constantly aware of their vulnerability, they survive as much by conforming to outside influences--relinquishing kosher laws, accepting non-Jewish mates--as by their wits. In ""The Monster,"" a man who turns out to be Shylock relates the story of his oppressed life and the sad murder of Il Mostrino, the misshapen mascot of 17th-century Venice's Jewish ghetto. In the title story, the one-eyed Cardoza finds solace and love in his 40-year unsanctioned ""marriage"" to a woman the villagers in his 18th-century English village call ""Jew's whore."" Young, aristocratic David Gladstone in ""The Crossing"" leaves Victorian England on a ship bound for New York but soon discovers that only other outsiders--a poor actress impersonating a gypsy and the flamboyant Oscar Wilde--will befriend him. And in ""The Affair,"" Bruno Sorge, a bit actor in present-day Greenwich Village operettas, refuses to compromise his beliefs by accepting the lead part in a Broadway musical based on the Dreyfus Affair. Isler has an acute ear for dialogue, as well as dialects; the voices of his characters are distinctive and distinctly Jewish, though they emanate from different centuries, and brutally candid about their circumscribed lives. He is also an intelligent and clever fabulist: his titles are plays on words, and each tale has a subtle connection to the one before it. But the most salient feature of Isler's work is also the factor that enables his characters to endure and to talk about it: an ironic sense of humor. (June) FYI: The Prince of West End Avenue won the National Jewish Book Award. Penguin will publish Kraven Images in trade paperback to coincide with Viking's release of The Bacon Fancier.