February 13, 2012

"Citizen Conn"

By Michael Chabon
~11,900 words

A Rabbi tries to resolve a feud between two aging comic book authors.

The first-person narrator and main character, Rebecca Teplitz, is the Rabbi in question. The story she tells dates from 1997 (the point of narration remains unspecified), when she first met Morton Feather, a resident of the assisted-living center in which she worked. In an even-handed tone sprinkled with wry humor, she recounts her attempts to make sense of the bitter rivalry between Feather and his former friend and colleague, Artie Conn. Feather has terminal cancer, and Conn hopes to reconcile with him before he dies. Rebecca's husband David is a lifelong comic-book fan who fills her in on the legendary status of the two men and the public account of their rivalry.

The highlight of the story is the touching portrayal of the decades-long relationship between Feather and Conn, both close to eighty at the time of the story. Because the narrative is told from Rebecca's perspective, the reader is initially as mystified as she is as to the reasons for their bitter rivalry and only gradually learns the details: how the two met in high school, how their friendship and combined talents gained them cult status at Nova Publications, and how an agreement Conn eventually signed with the publisher marked the decline of Feather's career. Conn believes that the latter incident lies at the heart of Feather's animosity toward him, and he goes to greater and greater lengths to earn his friend's forgiveness, desperate for absolution before Feather's imminent demise. True to life, however, the story's emotional conflicts are messy and do not admit easy solutions, and in the end the reader, like Conn, is left wondering what exactly it was that destroyed a friendship begun so auspiciously over sixty years earlier.

The weak point of the story is Chabon's penchant for wordiness and overwriting. He seems to have a special fondness for inanimate objects:
Its walls had been painted often enough since then, in the abject pastels fashionable among nursing homes, but sometimes in the late afternoon on one wall of my office I could still see, emulsified by years of Los Angeles sunlight, the shadow of a crucifix imprinted in the dust.
The rest of his room was occupied only by canvases and paint, by the burnt-upholstery stink of his perfecto, and by the Los Angeles sunshine that drizzled in through the raised Venetian blinds and smeared itself across every surface like Vaseline.
The kettle went on squandering its contents in an endless shrill alarum, as if registering its protest over what was about to happen.
And finally:
And then there were those who had felt moved, either on the spot or—after taking some time to reflect and make notes—in my office, to deliver themselves of wild, unanswerable orations, complete with hand gestures and table-poundings, on all the things I could not possibly know about life, the Torah, and the State of Israel, and on my evident personal shortcomings relative to the previous (old, male) rabbi, or, in one case, on the secret, malign accords between Hitler and Cordell Hull, F.D.R.'s Secretary of State during the Second World War.
In case you lost track, that last specimen features ninety-three words punctuated by two em-dashes, two parentheses, and fourteen commas. With long-windedness such as this, it's easy to see how a tale that might be told in something close to a standard-length New Yorker story balloons to 12,000 words. Even so, Chabon's unique, flawed characters make "Citizen Conn" worth the extra effort.


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