It's hard not to think of Philip Roth's early work while reading Benjamin Taylor's The Book of Getting Even. It's not just that the story focuses on conflicts within Jewish-American families, or that Taylor creates an impeccable portrait of 1970s America. And it goes beyond the comedy of sexual frustrations. It's the sense that this novel could be a marking point in a great career.
Taylor's book centers on Gabriel Geismar, the godless son of a rabbi, who grows up resentful of his father in every way. The rabbi regards him as an "eccentric prig," and Gabriel takes a cue from the story of Abraham and Isaac and sees that "a father was somebody who might decide to kill you."
Gabriel's hatred for his father partly dictates his choice to attend Swarthmore College, far from his family in New Orleans, but a bigger drive is his goal to join the "three absolute peaks" of mathematics; surely the trio of Archimedes, Newton and Gauss could use a Geismar. In the balancing of equations, Gabriel finds bliss: "Ah, now for calculability, sweet detachment from the corporeal universe and its demands; here in the abstract manipulations of symbols of quantity according to unchangeable rules was the freest of feelings."
He searches for this equilibrium, the "paradise of getting even," in his relationships as well, and in college he attaches himself to precocious twins Danny and Marghie Hundert and their family. In their father, a Nobel Prize-winning scientist, Gabriel finds the parental approval his dad never bestowed.
This is a slim novel, but Taylor covers a large span of time, moving swiftly through Gabriel's emerging sexuality and coming of age yet never rushing the story. What begins as a seemingly quixotic quest to separate from his father becomes a negotiation of sorts, leaving Gabriel with a sense of contentment, "a natural piety" for the magnificence of the stars and the hidden glory of bugs. With his story, Taylor creates a similar feeling within us.
Vikas Turakhia teaches English in Ohio.