A man walks down a street. He's doing nothing wrong. But someone thinks he looks wrong. And something bad happens.
Later, there's sorrow and commentary and maybe a clenched-teeth murmur of apology. But that's not the point. Prejudice is -- and the willingness for prejudice to percolate and become violence.
Gee, sounds familiar. Could be the basis of a taut thriller.
In fact, it already was.
Arthur Miller wrote the quintessential plays of his generation -- Death of a Salesman, All My Sons, The Crucible. He married Marilyn Monroe. As a crusader for literary freedom, he was the living symbol of The American Writer. So why does almost no one know about his one and only novel?
If you're aware of Focus, it's probably because of the movie adaptation, starring William H. Macy, Laura Dern and Meat Loaf.
But you haven't heard of that, either -- the movie was a flop.
So, some thought, was the book. Reviewing it in 1945, the New York Times critic wrote that it was more of a text than a novel. "Everything is too pat," he said.
An understandable opinion. I found Focus wonderfully evocative of '40s New York, powerful in its plotting, and challenging in its themes. And, like everything else, "pat" has changed considerably since World War II ended -- James Patterson, anyone? In comparison, Focus has aged well. Its theme, in any event, is evergreen: Look different, get treated different.
If you weren't born before 1920 and don't know much about the mood of America during World War II, Focus is an eye-opener. And a kind of urban thriller -- a drama about vigilantes who operate in the shadow of the most tolerant city in America. [To buy the paperback from Amazon, click here.]
Miller was inspired to write the brief (200 pages) book because he worked the night shift at the Brooklyn Navy Yard during the war. There he saw no great commitment to defeating the Nazis because of their persecution of the Jews. At the Navy Yard, the guys believed we were fighting the Krauts because they were allied with the Japanese, and the Japanese had attacked us at Pearl Harbor. Simple as that. As for the Jews, well....
Out of that experience came the character Miller called Lawrence Newman, descendant of a family that had come from Aldwich, England, in the 1860s. Newman works in personnel in a big company that's quietly but efficiently anti-Semitic in its hiring. That's not a problem for him. Though he hasn't thought much about it, he's also an anti-Semite.
As the book begins, Newman's asleep. Not for long -- someone is beating a woman outside his Brooklyn row house. Her cries suggest she's Spanish. Probably Puerto Rican. Should Newman call the police? Maybe. But then there are reasons not to. What is she doing in this neighborhood, at this time of night? And with what kind of man? No, he'll go back to sleep. And in the morning, when he wakes, "there would hardly be a crease in the bedding and his reddish hair, trained flat from the part on the left side, would not really need combing."
But in a city where people are scrawling "Kikes started WAR" on the pillars of subways, it comes to pass that Newman needs glasses. And when he gets them -- you guessed it -- he looks like a charter member of The Tribe.
Now his neighbor looks at him strangely. And that's not a good thing, because that burly guy is tied in to a network of bigots that intends to clean this country up when the war ends.
More bad luck: Newman falls in love with a woman he declined to hire because she looks Jewish. She's not. Her sympathies lie -- well, you can guess.
And then there is the resident Jew. Finkelstein. The news dealer. To the racist thugs in the neighborhood, he's low-hanging fruit. And they fully expect that they can have their way with him.
In thrillers, there's a moment when the little guy has to decide whether to stand up or not. He's usually no great shakes as a hulk -- if it gets physical, odds don't favor him -- but the outcome no longer matters. Standing up does.
And here Focus catches fire, for Finkelstein tells Newman the story of a pogrom in Poland. It ended badly, of course. But Finkelstein has a point to make about the way it went down:
Itzik should never have allowed himself to accept a role that was not his, a role that the baron had created for him. When he saw that the baron was bent on diverting the peasants' wrath from himself, he should have allowed his indignation to carry him away and gotten on his wagon and driven directly home. And then when the pogrom came, as it would no matter what he did, he could have found strength to fight. It was the pogrom that was inevitable, but not its outcome. Its outcome only seemed inevitable because that money was in his house as the horses' hoofs came pounding into the village. That money in his house had weakened him, it was the blindfold they had put upon his face and he had no right to let them put it on him. Without that blindfold he would have been ready to fight; with it he was only ready to die.
Finkelstein is announcing that he's no Itzik -- he's going to fight back, he's not going to let anyone make him a partner in his own victimization.
Newman ---who's not a Jew but might as well be -- must answer the same question.
And so, on occasion, must we.
[Cross-posted from HeadButler.com]
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