Kotlowitz novel evokes snips of Baltimore from earlier times

April 19, 1992|By Gerri Kobren

HIS MASTER'S VOICE.

Robert Kotlowitz.

Knopf.

338 pages. $21. In the hot Baltimore August of 1944, Cantor Sigmund Safer of the House of Israel synagogue on Garrison Boulevard has a lot on his mind. He's engaged in the annual task of whipping his High Holiday choir into shape. He's facing the threat of a schism in the congregation, as a disaffected group makes plans to break away. His 17-year-old daughter Annie-the-atheist is going out with an Italian Catholic from Woodlawn. His friend Barney Fribush just had surgery for cancer of the colon.

And the war is still raging in Europe. The dimension of the disaster is not yet known; focused on the casualty lists in the newspaper, Sigmund is unaware of the Holocaust itself, although he suspects that his two sisters, left behind in Poland, have been lost. In his dreams, they call to him from their graves.

This novel shows the summer of his discontent, and you have to feel sorry for him even though he's a cold, prissy, repressed little man with a pince-nez, an exaggerated sense of himself as master of the house, the car and the tropical fish, and no sense of humor at all. He doesn't even recognize the irony of his major dilemma: An atheist himself, he fears that God is using Annie to punish him for it.

It's all a lot of sound and fury, of course; none of it amounts to a hill of beans in the great scheme of things. In his descriptions of the cantor's fish tank, author Robert Kotlowitz seems to be suggesting, at the very least, that the frenzied darting about of the human characters is no more purposeful or truly independent than that of the fish.

In fact, he seems to be deliberately avoiding even the appearance of taking these people and their problems seriously. Shifting from scene to scene to scene in mini-chapters, some of which last no more than a couple of pages, he does not allow them to build any steam.

The cantor, for instance, visits Barney in the hospital, hating the smell of the place. The Scheingold kid -- Sylvan -- whose alto may be in its last choir season, slow-dances with his mother in their narrow East Baltimore apartment. The choir rehearses in the Safer dining room on Granada Avenue. Annie Safer and Bobby Fiorentino neck on Hillsdale golf course. Sigmund and his wife, Jenny, take a ride in the country along Forest Park Avenue and wonder what the farmers would think if they knew two Jews were driving by. Barney, home from the hospital, flirts with Jenny and decides to have a party at his Hilton Street house, overlooking Lake Ashburton.

Robert Kotlowitz grew up in Baltimore; his 1986 novel, "Sea Changes," was also set in the 1940s, and grounded in the Forest Park neighborhood. Now, as then, his evocation of that place and time is a walk down memory's streets for Baltimoreans who lived there or attended the big stone synagogue on the corner of Garrison Boulevard and Fairview Avenue.

If this were a memoir, it would be boffo. As a novel, however, it is more problematic. Slow-moving, low-key, fragmented, lacking any larger-than-life or even sympathetic characters, and using the war as conversational gambit only, it is often frustrating. There's not much plot. A reader would be hard-pressed to say what it's about.

On the other hand, there's quite a lot going on; momentum builds beneath the surface. Barney, dying, snatches at life in a motel with a woman. Sigmund, standing up to the rabbi on a matter that is in equal parts moral and convenient, has a heart attack and survives to give Barney a back rub on his deathbed; the odor of illness no longer matters. Sylvan, recognizing that his mother has a life of her own, begins to believe he'll have one, too. The dissidents fade away. So does Bobby Fiorentino. Ten years down the road, the cantor is retired; he and Jenny are living in Pikesville. Annie's got a child.

It's not exciting. It's just life.

Ms. Kobren is a copy editor at The Sun.

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