With What Will I Fill the Space You Left Behind?
A TOWN OF EMPTY ROOMS
by Karen Bender
Karen Bender’s second novel, A Town of Empty Rooms, opens with a flash in the pan and then simmers, as the most conventionally dramatic conflict is elided over in the first few pages. Serena Hirsch, a struggling public relations copywriter for Pepsi and the book’s protagonist, finds herself in the jewelry section of a Saks Fifth Avenue in Lower Manhattan and reminded of her recently, and unexpectedly, deceased father. As a child, her father convinced his own parents to emigrate to America from Germany, just before it became impossible for a Jewish family to do so, and from that experience grew an insistence on keeping pawn-able valuables close at hand. Serena is thus overcome by the sight of a bracelet she could never afford, and in a near trance-like state she charges it to her corporate credit card. It feels “like a final conversation with her father, like a deep and uncontrollable act of love.” Over the next three days this uncontrollable act becomes several acts, as she charges $8000 worth of jewelry to her employer’s account. There are many modern thrillers built on schemes of embezzlement, but A Town of Empty Rooms, fortunately enough, is not one of them. Indeed this scene of mania and longing is a mere springboard out of New York and into the much quieter, though no less riveting, conflicts to come.
We fast-forward three months, skipping over Serena’s arrest, dismissal, and eventual settlement with Pepsi. With the family financially ruined by legal fees, and Serena’s reputation destroyed, she and her husband Dan are thrust upon the mercy of the job market and forced to relocate to the fictional town of Waring, North Carolina, where Dan finds work. What follows is a Jewish family with cosmopolitan pretensions settling into life in the Bible Belt, amidst the culture shock of small town life and Christian churches of every conceivable denomination, seemingly on every street corner. This is one place where Bender takes a few easy shots at the stereotypical Southern Christian: we’re given italicized strings of signs that Serena reads as she drives through town, such as “If God Is Your Co-Pilot, Switch Seats” and “Don’t Be So Open-Minded: Your Brains Will Fall Out.” And though this is often amusing and, frankly, spot-on, hitting such easy targets leaves Waring, N.C. a flattened landscape of overweight rednecks and raised pickup trucks in Bender’s world. Added to this is the choice to set the novel in 2002, at the height of post-9/11 U.S. jingoism, apparently only for a couple opportunities to comment on U.S. foreign policy.
And yet it’s here in Waring that the conflicts Bender’s interested in begin, and these at first glance are the stuff of small town gossip. Forrest, Serena and Dan’s new neighbor, aggressively polices the dividing line between properties, for example, and much attention is paid to an argument over a tree. As the story continues Forrest’s attempts to put the “Christ” back into Christmas at the public school become increasingly menacing. Like the jewelry of the book’s opening, though, these are only symptoms of deeper problems that no one is capable of articulating. Forrest, whose large presence in the book underlies much of the tension, is as one-dimensional an example of a Southerner as the signs sitting on the church lawns, and the nature of his thinly-veiled hostility toward the Hirsches is often heavy-handed on Bender’s part, but it is in Serena and Dan’s responses to these squabbles where she’s at her best. We see the portrait of a strained marriage with haunting clarity, and what slowly unfolds then are Serena and Dan’s various attempts at assimilation and resistance to the community.
Unemployed and searching for an identity, Serena decides, more or less on a whim, to rediscover her faith, and so visits the town’s lone temple. There she’s mesmerized by the charismatic rabbi, Rabbi Golden, and begins working as an assistant to the office assistant, as well as taking a place on the congregation’s board of directors. She also begins secretly phoning the rabbi late at night, silently listening to his confused hellos when he answers. Serena’s involvement with the temple is both a personal comfort and a stand against Waring’s oppressive Christianity, usually demonstrated in the person of Forrest. In the hands of a less complex writer, the stage would be set for an easy conversion narrative and open hostility between Jew and Gentile, but instead it’s here that Bender’s talent for character shows through. Rabbi Golden, it turns out, is half-crazed after his time ministering in the military, and the resulting divide in Serena’s loyalties—to the rabbi, to the congregation, to her husband, to herself—showcases the emotional power latent in the mundane, everyday interactions between people.
Dan, meanwhile, ever the spineless sycophant, is blind to Forrest’s basically overt anti-semitism. In other words, Dan plays the Beta to Forrest’s Alpha Male. What makes it tragic rather than comic, though, is the fact that, conveniently for the narrative, Dan is also in mourning, over the death of his estranged older brother. He’s also mourning his loss of New York, and his pre-felon wife. As he is unable to comprehend Serena’s larcenous spree, and more importantly unable simply to ask her about it, we are reminded of how a single impasse in a marriage can multiply and shut down all communication. And in his isolation, Dan’s answer is to go along to get along. He enrolls their son, Jeb, in the local Boy Scout troop, and he himself volunteers as a Scout Leader, while Forrest is of course the leader of the whole local chapter. But as Dan dresses in the scout uniform for the first time, we’re told in no uncertain terms that he’s more concerned with his own lost youth than his son’s involvement, and so Dan hesitantly, but willingly, plays the role of Jewish curio for Forrest’s scouts.
Underlying this forked path—Serena at the temple and Dan with the scouts—is the wish to return to a before: before Serena’s father died, before Dan’s brother died, before Waring, N.C. Though what that was like, they can’t quite remember, and, like all nostalgic memories, never really existed in the first place. So the real question becomes: where will these two make their stand? Against a town that’s two-parts ignorant of and one-part hostile to Judaism? Against a rabbi who may or may not be destroying his congregation? Or against a domineering neighbor? And where A Town of Empty Rooms truly succeeds is not in the petty arguments that move the plot along, but in how we, as readers, can observe how invested these characters are in those arguments. Ultimately, each attachment in the book—the rabbi, the scouts, the tree in Serena and Dan’s yard, the jewelry—is a substitute for the death of a loved one and the possible death of a marriage. They also represent a chance for one last conversation, a conversation that’s impossible with the living. What emerges, then, is a novel about the unsaid, the unspeakable, and the ways we talk past the dividing lines between us.