In fiction, it’s hard for the author to keep himself out of the story. “Ziprin’s Ghost,” from local author Ron Pies, is no different. While only about half of the stories are clearly autobiographical, the other half might as well be. Pies’ life story as an American Jew growing up in a not-so-Jewish town in Western New York in the 1950s, his professional experiences in psychiatry and his inner struggles with faith and Judaism all come across through the collection.
The purely autobiographical pieces of the collection are rich. Pies’ portrayal of idyllic summers in the Catskills, rebellious acts at Christmastime toward his stringent father and his adolescent mutiny against Yom Kippur and his rabbi all give the reader a perspective on the journey Pies has been on and the memories he still cherishes.
On a more serious (perhaps cautionary) note, the tenuous co-existence of Jews, Italians and Poles in his hometown of Richfield, New York, is a sobering reflection on the days when assimilation wasn’t on the tip of everyone’s tongue and Jews were still a curiosity, or worse. As Pies wrote in “The Wreath,” to be a Jew in those days was to be treated “as [an] exotic interloper to be tolerated with a sort of patronizing annoyance.” This latent hostility becomes all too real in the book’s final story, “Frank Sinatra, Savior of the Jews,” which makes the reader cringe, expecting the worst, only to be saved by the timely arrival of Old Blue Eyes. (No spoilers here—you’ll have to read it for context!)
The other recurring theme in the stories is that of mental illness. “Leo in the Attic” features a crazy uncle who is literally kept in the attic to keep everyone sane and the protagonist living rent-free with his parents. “Death to Steinsaltz” deals with an unlikely and clumsy attempted murder by a deranged Russian speaker at Temple Beth Elohim in Wellesley (where else!). Sprinkled in to a few other stories are anecdotes that could only come from a clinician.
The other stories are an interesting mishmash. “The Fake Jew” is about a half-Jewish Danish police officer who is tasked with dressing as a Chasidic Jew to smoke out anti-Semites in Amsterdam. “The Flies of September” comes out of nowhere as a tragic tale of 9/11. The opening tale, “Yanowitz on Yom Kippur,” follows around a somewhat unstable Jewish man in Harvard Square on Yom Kippur.
There are memorable lines and characters littering the book, and even in the stories that aren’t about Pies, it’s obvious they, in fact, probably are.
As the Danish policeman wrestles with a half-Jewish Moroccan anti-Semite, the echoes of Jacob wrestling with the divine being in Genesis connect to some kind of inner conflict that Pies wants us to know about. The humanity of the many characters who have gone through the pain of divorce, cancer or a psychiatric disorder make the reader both be sympathetic to their characters but also to Pies, who has undoubtedly spent his life encountering such people in his work.
In the end, Pies isn’t just telling us stories of 1950s American Judaism or offering his commentary on the complexities of identity and religion. He’s telling us his stories. “Ziprin’s Ghost” is real. It’s tragic. It’s funny. Not every story shines, but in each there’s something valuable to glean—a moment in time, a quotation, a moral lesson. Take an evening (all you’ll need is about an hour-and-a-half) to read it once, read it again the next night and then come back for the highlights once more. There are some layers you’ll want to peel away, and some characters you’ll want to take another look at.
“Ziprin’s Ghost” left me feeling a little melancholy, a little troubled, a little nostalgic for things and places I never experienced, and more than a little sympathetic for both the characters and for Pies, who has opened his life for us to read about and try to understand. In the end, it was a journey worth taking, and I encourage you to do the same.
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