A review of Life, Death & Bialys by Dylan Schaffer

Life, Death & Bialys is a very personal book. Dylan tells us much about himself, and what he tells us is the kind of thing that most of us can’t talk about. Dylan is fearlessly self-revelatory. He strips briskly and without affectation. It is a necessary performance justified within the book’s framework.

Reviewed by Bob Williams

Life, Death & Bialys
by Dylan Schaffer
Bloomsbury
2006, ISBN 1-59691-192-1, $24.95, 272 pages

Dylan Schaffer has written three excellent books: Dog Stories, a lovely collection of vignettes and photographs; Misdemeanor Man; and I Right the Wrongs. These last two are mystery novels that involve a hero who is both an underachieving attorney and amateur musician. Schaffer himself is a criminal defense lawyer in California.

Life, Death & Bialys is not fiction. It concerns the relationship between Dylan and his father. With reason, Dylan bears his father a grudge of fearful proportions. Alan Schaffer left his wife and abandoned his children. Cookie, Dylan’s mother, was an aggressive woman with a long history of mental illness. In the course of her life she grew worse and worse, and subjected her children to abuse that put her beyond the border of the acceptable. She took her own life at last, and left her children with a maliciously constructed inheritance that alienated Dylan from his one sister. Alan, known by his nickname Flip throughout the book, is dying of cancer, and enrolls himself and Dylan in a pastry baking school in New York. Although this is an attempt on Flip’s part to achieve reconciliation, Dylan is not sure that he wants to be or can be reconciled.

Flip doesn’t appear ill. The pair take a room together in the wrong hotel where Flip characteristically takes charge and partly bullies and partly charms the hotel manager into doing what Flip wants. This initial exchange sets the tone of Dylan’s relationship, embarrassment and resentment, with Flip for most of their time in New York. Flip is not an adept student, and Dylan, who expected little from the course, finds himself learning and enjoying himself. He has the opportunity to thrash over the past with Flip who is at once elusive and mendacious. On top of his resentments, he endures frustration over Flip’s evasive tactics. Dylan has expected that he will inherit the old man’s literary remains. Flip tells him that he has lost them, no, destroyed them, or, maybe, lost them. Dylan can’t pin him down and the loss of these adds to the bitterness of his feelings.

Towards the end of their week in New York, Dylan, reluctant to spend yet another evening of undiluted and fruitless time with Flip, goes out into the streets. Here he is menaced by a group of bullies but makes his escape. Something in this episode dislodges the block of resentment that he has been carrying for years and he returns to the hotel room where they make peace at last.

The second and shorter part of the book deals with Flip at home. He is now dying and Dylan comes to be with him. There is a mixture of sadness and comedy that is deftly balanced and all of it is moving. In the course of his searching through his father’s belongings, Dylan finds the missing literary works of his father. These prove to be more various, exuberant, and polished than one would expect from a professor of history.

Life, Death & Bialys is a very personal book. Dylan tells us much about himself, and what he tells us is the kind of thing that most of us can’t talk about. Dylan is fearlessly self-revelatory. He strips briskly and without affectation. It is a necessary performance justified within the book’s framework. This book has a luminous quality that invests episodes and stances that might be considered difficult and unpleasant. It has a cleansing honesty that sets it apart. This is a book that you will read, remember, and treasure.

About the Reviewer: Bob Williams is retired and lives in a small town with his wife, dogs and a cat. He has been collecting books all his life, and has done freelance writing, mostly on classical music. His principal interests are James Joyce, Jane Austen and Homer. His book Joyce Country, a guide to persons and places, can be accessed at: http://www.grand-teton.com/service/Persons_Places

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