Faith for Beginners
A well-meaning reflection of modern faith and family, Aaron Hamburger’s Faith for Beginners tries for depth as refracted through a lens of 21st-century mores, but ends up with an affable but morally center-less novel. The Michaelsons are a middle-class Jewish family from Michigan, and not particularly religious. There are two grown sons, Richard and Jeremy, both of whom are gay. Richard leads a relatively settled life with his Asian partner, but Jeremy is assiduously copping the very worst NYU student asshole’s lifestyle imaginable—he does loads of drugs, dyes his hair green, fails to graduate on time, makes a halfhearted suicide attempt by sprinkling Valium all over his ice cream. That’s a nice touch—the notion of cold, sweet death in the form of two great palliatives is delightfully fitting for a spoiled brat like Jeremy. His parents, in a sweet but misguided attempt to help their son and themselves, undertake a trip to Israel in hopes of finding spiritual relief.
Jeremy, to put it bluntly, sucks. Whether or not you’re being coached to hate him or not is unclear, but even as he “grows” as a person, as evinced by many references to the green dye slowly fading from his fauxhawk, he remains essentially a selfish, demanding young man. He enjoys a brief fling with a deaf Muslim who, following a cringe-inducing scene where Jeremy uses their “love” to make a particularly ill-thought-out political point, is arrested. Hamburger writes Jeremy as though he has some measure of sympathy for him, but with Jeremy representing some of the worst, most blundering of American behaviors, it is hard for you to extend the same grace.
Jeremy’s mother, who Hamburger refers to as “Mrs. Michaelson,” as though instead of being her creator he was a guest in her kitchen, goes through some changes of her own. She’s brought her sick husband along to Israel despite the heat, danger, and general hassle of traveling. He’s not dying, but he’s not living very well either, and his illness exacerbates her feelings of loneliness and confusion. The explorations of her feelings toward her faith are some of the more interesting points in the book. Mrs. Michaelson is representative of millions of Americans, Jew or gentile, who have a fuzzy connection to their faith, a vague desire to know better their god, and a general exasperation at the inability of the world to “just get along.” Her failure to feel “holy on demand,” as when she views some stones sacred to Judaism, is a neatly concise delineation of the way that freedom and comfort tend to erode religious fervor. Having her sleep with a greasily handsome young Rabbi hardly makes an interesting point.