Feel free to skip Francis Levy’s Tombstone

Today, I’m doing something I’ve never done before: writing about a book I strongly suggest you shouldn’t read.
This has nothing to do with “book banning,” which we remember about Hitler, who not only made reading some 25,000 books a crime, but actually encouraged their burning. We should also remember that an epidemic of such banning swept across our own country some 30 years ago. I treasure an old bracelet from that era, with its eight links, one of which proudly proclaims “I Read Banned Books”; the other seven illustrate a variety of “victims” running the gamut from Alice in Wonderland to anything by Alice Walker.
Over many years, I’ve found the reading of some books a waste of time. Anyone who reads much will encounter these and recommend against them. But outright banning? Never. That’s why I make a face and swallow hard at the recent publication of Tombstone: (Not a Western) by Francis Levy. By all means, read it if you wish. I, however, find it so off-putting that I have to take this public stand against it.
Levy’s first novel, Erotomania: A Romance, was billed as “a satirical exploration of compulsive sexuality.” His second, Seven Days in Rio, chronicles the wanderings of “a 60-something Manhattan accountant as a sex tourist.” You get the basic picture here, and it should be enough of a warning. But in his third book, Jews and Judaism form the center of what I see as a deranged attempt at humor, so I have to speak out.
The author is definitely a Jew who knows enough about Jewishness to turn it, most unflatteringly, on its head.
Levy’s “protagonist” — I use this word here with some intended irony — is Robert Berman, and how sorry I feel for men everywhere and anywhere who surely share what must be a common Jewish name. (Remember how so many suffered after publication of Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint?) His wife, Marsha, is demeaned throughout, in every way possible. Other characters are Levy’s own inventions, some figures drawn from real literature and those most supposed at the end of life, including God.
The story begins with the Bermans trying to make “arrangements” — Levy’s catch-all word for end-of-life plans. In this section, they show no respect for, not even knowledge of, the Judaism they were born into. Their concerns are with appearances and costs: fancy caskets, outfits to be buried in, foods to be served at the shiva and achieving the supposed prestige of an obituary in The New York Times, even if it will be only a very short one. But a disastrous financial downturn mars the Bermans’ culmination of any real decisions; instead, the two somehow manage to make a trip to “Tombstone,” a way-out-west resort for those who are on their way out of this world.
Here, salespeople hawk merchandise while financial advisers stand by to help with choices, and there are group activities and seminars ranging from physical exercise to mental health and self-help, all trying to make anticipation of death a satisfying — even fun — experience. (I will pause here to remind everyone of the very serious, very sane “Conversation Project,” now circulating throughout our own Jewish community and beyond, with its very real intention of being helpful to all of us in dealing with end-of-life issues. This is good. Tombstone is very bad, indeed.)
Suddenly, Berman — with all his salacious thoughts — and Marsha — whom we know only through her husband’s unflattering eyes — are on their way to death. Robert wants to go to heaven, or at least purgatory, but certainly not hell, and on his ride across the River Styx, he plans his approach to God, whom he actually meets and converses with — a cartoon figure that maligns everything Judaism holds dear and true.
If you want to read this travesty, I’ll loan you my copy. Then I’ll see if Half Price Books has any interest in buying it…

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