Survival at a Price: Welcome to Bari Wood’s The Tribe

Freaky Friday is here! That day of the week where we examine the beautiful traditions of the Jewish people by reading books about golems tearing off the legs of underaged gangbangers.

Jewish horror is a very small subset of the massive paperback horror boom of the 1970s and ’80s. In fact, if you take out Nazi horror it becomes positively tiny, especially compared to Native American horror novels which are not horror novels written by members of North America’s First Nations but are, in fact, books where ancient Indian (a) monsters, (b) real estate, (c) curses kill white people. But even without Nazis, Jewish horror exists. And it is quite silly.

There’s The Gilgul (’90) with its famous cover and possessed Jewish bride finger-banging a nurse after she’s locked up in a hospital, a sight so shocking it sends her fiance’ fleeing to Miami where he tries to kill himself by having sex with the skeeviest prostitutes he can find, hoping to contract AIDS. There’s Red Devil (’89), in which KGB agents armed with super-powered shofars take on demonically possessed spies during an inter-agency war after Satan ditches the dying Nazis at the end of WW II and becomes a Soviet intelligence officer for the duration of the Cold War. And while both books have their charms, they don’t hold out a lot of hope for the general reader. In fact, I was at a low point when I picked up Bari Wood’s The Tribe and flipped open the frankly underwhelming stepback cover. I knew it was a book about a golem and I knew it was written in 1981. But I wasn’t expecting much.

I was so wrong.

Born on New Year’s Eve, 1936, Bari Wood started out as an editor for CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians which sounds like the most depressing job ever. Later she became a writer and had hits with The Killing Gift (’75) and, most famously, Twins (’77) which was adapted by David Cronenberg into Dead Ringers (’88). No slouch, she, Wood’s 1993 novel, Doll’s Eyes was adapted as 1999’s Neil Jordan movie, In Dreams. When it appeared in 1981, The Tribe was Wood’s first novel since Twins and it got lukewarm reviews, which called it “unconvincingly syrupy” and claimed it was full of “sappy characters and undermined by the overbearing sentimentality.” People must have been real hardasses in 1981, because what was dismissed then as “syrupy” reads today like three-dimensional, a quality which has made The Tribe a hidden classic, a point underscored when it received a limited edition re-issue from Centipede Press which is the horror fiction equivalent of getting into the Criterion Collection. To be fair, The Tribe is not rife with swarms of killer moths slurping flesh from their still-living victims, which may be enough to get you called sentimental in 1981. I don’t know, I was nine. What I do know is that this is a big, fat, satisfying novel that feels qualified and hopeful and sad and funny and full of characters who are more than thinly-disguised cogs in the terrible, grinding plot machine.

The Tribe opens with a sequence guaranteed to make the hearts of editors and readers sink: a prologue set during World War II. In Nuremberg (groan), a military shrink is trying to ship an officer back home after the war because the party’s over and it’s time to return to civilian life. The officer, Major Bianco, was one of the grunts who liberated Belzec and the brass are nervous that he’s hanging around because he wants to take a shot at the camp commandant once he’s brought in to stand trial. Not only does it look bad if a prisoner-of-war is murdered while in American custody, but Bianco’s obsession is, frankly, unhealthy. If you’ve read five horror novels from the ’80s then you’ve read four prologues set during WWII, but the writing picks up steam and ends with a cliffhanger: the improbable survival of the Jews in Belzec’s Barracks 554. “35 Jews in that camp ate applesauce and canned fish while the SS ate garbage,” Bianco asks. “Why?”

Tell me more.

Cut to: Brooklyn, 1981. On Flatbush Avenue a Jewish philosophy professor named Adam Levy is stabbed to death by a gang of kids who can barely manage mustaches. His best friend is Roger Hawkins, an African-American cop on the rise in the department, who gets the grim task of telling his family. Roger and Adam are practically brothers, and their surrogate father is Jacob Levy, Adam’s actual father who survived Belzec and now functions as the revered elder of a tight-knit group of Holocaust survivors who, unfortunately, hate Roger because he’s black. Roger couldn’t keep his friend safe, he’s kind of got a crush on Rachel, Adam’s pregnant widow, he’s widely hated by Jacob’s friends and, to really rub some salt into that wound, he knows that if he arrests these kids they’ll be out of prison in a couple of years at most. Then an enormous stranger attacks the street gang and tears them into pieces. Hawkins suspects the tribe of survivors have something to do with it, and between his suspicions, Jacob’s grief, and Rachel’s guilt over her attraction to Roger, things fall apart.

Jump to: years later. Jacob and Rachel have ditched Brooklyn for Long Island, raising her baby in the suburbs, and the past is the past. But when a black family moves into the neighborhood the Jewish homeowners panic over their potentially plunging property values. Racial tensions are twisted past the breaking point and then another murder is committed by an enormous stranger who leaves his victims torn to shreds. Suddenly, the past is bubbling up through the floorboards and no one can stop it: Adam’s murder, the abandoned Roger Hawkins, Major Bianco, Belzec, Barracks 554, going all the way back to the village in Dabrowa where Jacob Levy was born, the war isn’t over, the war never ended, and it’s hauled its stinking carcass up out of the grave and all the way to Long Island.

Wood has written a book about tribes. Families who put their backs together and face outwards, defending themselves against invaders. African-Americans sticking together in hostile workplaces. Jews from the same village banding together to survive the Holocaust. Each of these tribes is necessary for survival and each one is hostile to outsiders, bound by secrets, and ultimately poisonous. Thick with ’80s New York atmosphere, Tribe is a book that keeps on giving, bouncing from wisecracking cabalists, to Jewish gangsters, to police department politics, as it follows a conservative Jewish woman, an African-American man tired of being patronized because of his skin, and a Polish emigree who doesn’t understand why it feels like the war never ended, as they try to break the lethal habits they developed a long time ago in order to survive.

And yes, there is a giant homicidal golem at the center of this book, but the real pleasures of The Tribe are in its characters, even the minor ones. There’s the not-so-heroic rabbi who talks a big game until the crunch comes. The concentration camp survivor who killed traitors with his bare hands and has aged into a doddering, white haired, pink-cheeked grandfather. The African-American doctor’s wife with a taste for vodka and her 17-year-old son who loves babies. And then there are the tiny details, the grace notes of the writing that elevate it over so much in the genre. A broken bottle of perfume whose scent still haunts a garage 35 years later. An incongruous flowered curtain that acquires menace as the reader slowly realizes what it conceals. A woman who hesitates a moment before returning an engagement ring because she’s reluctant to lose the status it gave her when she walked into a store. And a murdered man whose last thoughts, as he’s stabbed to death on Nostrand Avenue, aren’t of the boys dogpiling him, their switchblades darting in and out, but of a trip he once took with his wife, lugging a canoe three miles through the Minnesota forests before they slipped it into a dark lake. Of the way she looked from behind, paddling clumsily in the bow. Of the profile of her face as she turned. He’s dying, and all he can think about is her smile, on that impossibly perfect afternoon, a long time ago.

best-friends-exorcism-thumbnailGrady Hendrix has written for publications ranging from Playboy to World Literature Today; his previous novel was Horrorstör, about a haunted IKEA, and his latest novel, My Best Friend’s Exorcism, is basically Beaches meets The Exorcist.

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