Sunday, November 19, 2017
Books

Review: Amity Gaige explores identity, parental bond in 'Schroder'

RECOMMENDED READING


Almost 35 years have passed since Kramer vs. Kramer swept the Academy Awards and focused the nation's attention on the pain of child custody battles. Attitudes about divorce and laws governing custody have evolved since that time, but the United States is still home to thousands of conflicts every year that put kids under siege from parents hurling accusations and tearing open intimate spaces.

A plaintive new novel from Amity Gaige called Schroder explores this common tragedy in a most uncommon way. The entire book is a testimony, written in prison, by a divorced dad to his ex-wife. Equal parts plea, apology and defense, this enthralling letter rises up from a fog of narcissism that will cloud your vision and put you under his spell. "There are castles of things I want to tell you," Schroder says at the opening. "Which might explain the enthusiasm of this document, despite what you could call its sad story."

Indeed, it turns out that Schroder has been building castles in the air for a long time, ever since he and his father fled East Germany and came to America in 1979. At the age of 14, without his father's knowledge, Erik made up a fake name — Eric Kennedy — and applied for a scholarship to a summer camp. There, in the idyllic woods, he invented a fresh new identity, scented with rumors of a distant connection to the Hyannis Port Kennedys.

In the grand tradition of American immigrants, he hammered together a usable past from the basic blocks of American myth. "I was constantly at work being Eric Kennedy," he says, disguising his accent, hiding his "Germanness." He went to college, married an earnest young woman who knew nothing about his real identity, and they had a little girl named Meadow. Soon, though, Eric's erratic behavior ruined their marriage, and they entered into an unstable separation.

Gaige was inspired by a news account of Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter, who immigrated to the United States from Germany in his teens, assumed the name Clark Rockefeller, and went on to develop a fraudulent life as a wealthy married man. But Schroder isn't a fictionalized version of that sensational real event. Gaige has developed her own less glamorous but more poignant story.

What's more, she's cleverly woven together the national psyches of Schroder's old and new homes. He's a man compelled by the complications of German history to deny his past and seduced by the promises of American mythology to invent a new one. The Wall that he and his father crossed over was no more solid than the barrier between the two selves he's constructed in his own mind.

A visiting writer at Amherst College, Gaige displays an unnerving insight into the grandiosity and fragility of the middle-aged male ego, what Schroder refers to as his "latent exceptionalism." He speaks about himself with glib self-knowledge and psychological insight that seem an act of confession, but they're actually symptoms of a faux identity. Beneath the surface of Schroder's "lovingly constructed American life," Gaige lets us feel the slow-acting poison of his deceit. Yes, he can write beautifully, he's charming and loquacious, full of engaging factoids about history and mildly amusing observations on modern culture, but there's something manic about this con man's patter, something a little too polished about this effort to humanize himself, something that scratches the inner ear of our suspicion.

What follows is the shocking story of how he skipped town with his 6-year-old daughter during one of her weekly visits and took her on an increasingly treacherous flight from the law. "The word abduction is all wrong," he insists. "It was more like an adventure. . . . I was merely very, very late to return her from an agreed-upon visit." How many times have newly divorced, thoroughly exasperated young mothers had to deal with their own glad-handing Schroders? "This is exactly the sort of easily misunderstood intrigue that could find its way into the tabloids," he says with that reflexive dismissiveness that once infuriated his wife.

Adventure or abduction, his tale makes for a fascinating mixture of candor and self-justification, a testimony that glosses over the most harrowing and negligent behavior with buoyant good cheer and professions of love. And what makes it all deeply tragic, instead of merely psychologically thrilling, is that Schroder really does adore his daughter. His descriptions of their little science experiments and charming repartee are moments of bliss that will resonate for any parent. The delight he takes in Meadow is as palpable as the panic he feels at losing her.

That affection, though, is tinged with dread: "I wanted to be with my daughter more than anything," he says, "and yet I also wanted to be free of that desire. I wanted to be free of that desire because I knew being with her had an end." How dangerously might a congenital liar behave when threatened with the prospect of total exposure, the complete dismantling of a tower of lies? "I was reckless, illogical, maybe even lacking moral character," he confesses, "but I was not crazy." As always, there's just no way to say that without sounding a bit loony.

Gaige has published two previous novels and was chosen in 2006 for the National Book Foundation's "5 Under 35" honor, but with endorsements from such heavyweights as Jonathan Franzen and Jennifer Egan, Schroder is clearly her breakout book. With its psychological acuity, emotional complexity and topical subject matter, it deserves all the success it can find. I wish there were such a thing as a Divorced Couples Book Club just so we could listen in on the tangled responses.

"Look at me. Imagine me," Schroder pleads near the end of his wildly rambling, incriminating statement, awash in grief so desperate that your heart breaks for him but so self-absorbed that he's a little repellent. "There is almost nothing that distinguishes me from all the other sad men and women who have languished in the American family court system," he says. "They became damaged people, really. Deranged people. Because, of course, there is one thing that really deranges us, and that is the disappearance of love."

It's a testimony, finally, to our extraordinary powers of self-delusion. His crimes may be unusual, but any number of us might mutter, "Ich bin ein Schroder."

Comments
Video: Forget Pizza Rat. Meet St. Petersburg’s Pizza Squirrel

Video: Forget Pizza Rat. Meet St. Petersburg’s Pizza Squirrel

New York, it seems, doesn't have a monopoly on pizza-chomping rodents.Around 2:45 p.m. Friday, the Tampa Bay Times spotted a squirrel digging a nearly entire slice of pizza out of a trash can at 146 Second St. N in St. Petersburg. The squirrel hoppe...
Published: 11/17/17
Here are this week’s pop culture winners and losers

Here are this week’s pop culture winners and losers

WINNERS:Taylor SwiftFollowing the death of his mother, Gloria, The Tonight Show host Jimmy Fallon shared a touching story with the audience about his mom squeezing his hand three times and saying "I love you," when he was a kid. "Last week, I was in ...
Published: 11/17/17
Review: ‘Marvel’s Runaways’ pits rebellious teens against their evil parents

Review: ‘Marvel’s Runaways’ pits rebellious teens against their evil parents

The parents in Runaways really are the worst.Hulu's new Marvel series follows a ragtag group of teenagers who have to band together to defeat their own parents, who are collective members of a secret criminal organization called the Pride.In the wake...
Published: 11/17/17
What to watch this weekend: ‘The Punisher,’ ‘Search Party,’ Elizabeth Smart Lifetime movie

What to watch this weekend: ‘The Punisher,’ ‘Search Party,’ Elizabeth Smart Lifetime movie

GRIEF AND GUNS: THE PUNISHERMarvel fans first saw Marine veteran Frank Castle (Jon Bernthal) in Netflix's Daredevil series. The brutish anti-hero finally gets his own series with The Punisher, exploring what he did after helping Daredevil (Charlie Co...
Published: 11/17/17
Jesmyn Ward wins National Book Award for ‘Sing, Unburied, Sing’

Jesmyn Ward wins National Book Award for ‘Sing, Unburied, Sing’

Jesmyn Ward is having a good year.At a glamorous ceremony Wednesday night in New York, Ward was named the winner of the 2017 National Book Award for Sing, Unburied, Sing, about a Mississippi family's epic road trip. The book is Ward's third novel ...
Published: 11/16/17
Review: George Saunders’ ‘Sea Oak’ makes a dead-funny TV comedy

Review: George Saunders’ ‘Sea Oak’ makes a dead-funny TV comedy

Recently, George Saunders won the Man Booker Prize, one of the world’s most prestigious literary awards.And now he has a TV show about zombies!Saunders, one of America’s best writers of fiction, won the 2017 Booker for his splendid novel Lincoln in t...
Published: 11/16/17

Events: Tampa historians to sign books at hurricane relief benefit

Book TalkNancy Christie (Rut-Busting Book for Writers) will sign her book at 11 a.m. Nov. 20 at 321 Books, 6901 22nd Ave. N, St. Petersburg.John Cinchett (Vintage Tampa Storefronts and Scenes), Rex Gordon (History of Hillsborough High School), Linda ...
Published: 11/16/17
What’s Elaine M. Hayes reading?

What’s Elaine M. Hayes reading?

NightstandElaine M. HayesHayes, the author of Queen of Bebop: The Musical Lives of Sarah Vaughan, said she was a college student when Vaughan’s voice first captivated her. "My roommate played a lot of her in our daily life. I remember thinking that s...
Published: 11/16/17
Your heart can go on when ‘Titanic’ returns to theaters

Your heart can go on when ‘Titanic’ returns to theaters

It's the holiday season, so why not capitalize on a beloved film by bringing it back to theaters for a limited engagement?That's what Dolby Laboratories, Paramount Pictures and AMC Theaters are doing, announcing that a remastered version of Titanic w...
Published: 11/15/17
Review: ‘The Punisher’ packs a punch tackling grief and revenge

Review: ‘The Punisher’ packs a punch tackling grief and revenge

If Frank Castle sees someone committing an act of evil, he has no problem ending them.Castle (Jon Bernthal) is The Punisher in Netflix's new Marvel series, spun off from another popular superhero series, Daredevil. The Punisher follows the former mar...
Published: 11/14/17