A funny look at the liberal state of mind
Taking her title from her journalistic forbearer’s 1971 riotous report, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Debra Galant reports on, in her new novel, Fear and Yoga in New Jersey, a different state of being--the state of the nervously liberal in the 21st century.
It is a first-hand account of how the self-critical and anxiety producing life-style of upper-middle class liberals has gotten all tangled up in knots due to their lack of a strong emotional and social center. With the use of her wonderfully drawn characters, Galant shows how they would like to use their energies creatively but instead turn every project into a counter-productive mass of conflicts.
While this may not have been Galant’s main intention, the book goes into great detail to show how difficult liberals find it to be, well, liberals. From the ways in which they have learned to change their behavior--from the kind of car they drive to their efforts to green up the planet by recycling one’s waste to their rigorous vegetarian diet—they have devised time consuming rituals to do the right thing and not yet learned to enjoy any of it.
Nina Gettelman, the yoga teacher protagonist of the book, is a former resident of Long Island whose Jewish upbringing has left her without a spiritual center. She has married Michael, who contributes much to the conflicts Nina is plagued by, all of which are due to her constant struggle to free herself from the omnipresence of her parents’ voices telling her she is doing something wrong. When the novel begins, Michael has just lost his job as the meteorologist in the air traffic control tower at Newark Airport. Nina and Michael have a son, Adam, who is of bar mitzvah age and whose goal becomes to be bar mitzvahed and get all the loot he has witnessed others receiving despite the fact that he has neither studied Hebrew nor been raised in a religious home.
On the outskirts of this story is a hurricane that is about to hit Florida and winds up in New Jersey. That hurricane also drives Nina’s parents up to New Jersey to be with Nina and avoid the horrors of the hurricane in Florida. Their protracted arrival on the scene further complicates all that Nina is trying to do to control her now spinning out of control life. She is driven to rely on the advice of a stranger who assures her she can restore the balance and calm in her life by applying the proper feng shui. Ah, if only, the reader wants to tell her.
What proceeds to happen after she banishes her husband from the house during her parents’ visit (to hide his unemployment), and what their son’s quest, unbeknownst to them, for the coveted bar mitzvah, leads to, makes for some of the most hilarious writing requiring a calm mind in order to appreciate their zany intensity. While Michael ends up in the custody of Homeland Security and the rest of the clan goes to the neighboring rabbi’s home for a Shabbas dinner, Nina’s psyche matches the twists and turns of the hurricane’s southern and northern appearances as well as the twists and turns of the plot.
Within this storm of feelings--of angst and true anxiety--the real crises of our contemporary life come crashing in on them and they, as a family, don’t quite succumb but endure. By the end of the novel even Nina’s spiritual needs can be acknowledged and while not truly met they are appeased. For her, a real spiritual commitment has to be nonpartisan (i.e., nonsectarian) and thus cannot yet be fulfilled.
Each character walks around feeling that the world is out of control and you must learn to make up the rules as you go along. This, I do believe, is part of the problem with this segment of the liberal population. Galant shows us how heavy their work load is and their feelings of resentment that it is an unpaid and unremarked upon struggle. It is Nina’s struggle to accept this that gives the novel its manic energy. These liberals resent how hard their life is and what it costs them to try and do the right thing all the time. But let’s be honest, without this kind of hard-working cohort in the more left leaning states, we would not be able to fund the kinds of elections we are now being treated to.
While it may be easy to scoff at those who live these lives, Galant also shows what it is like to be a Nina, who attempts to do the right thing, to do all those things we are constantly implored to do because they are both morally right and good for us.
Galant’s picture of a family at the peak of an existential crisis is fully realized. We are all afraid of the loss of income and the domino effect that can have on our lives. But this portrait is painted with humor, grace and in a prose style that charges full steam ahead with manic glee. The fact that Galant chooses to end the novel with Nina’s spiritual progression from yoga instructor to member of a drumming circle shows how long and winding indeed that road is going to be for her. This is indeed no ending, just another stop along the way. But it does restore some lightness and fun to Nina’s life.
Fiction can parse the world so clearly. It can also surpass what any poll or census or investigative report can tell us about what life is like on the other side of the Hudson in the more well to do suburbs. While reading this novel, one can sit back and enjoy all the imaginary fireworks and hijinks in a fresh and unforgettable set of experiences that may seem somewhat familiar but are not at all mundane. That is more than can be said for all the partisan wrangling that goes on daily that others feel a need to report on—a pity that they cannot enjoy more in life, like drumming. (In the interests of full disclosure, Debra Galant was a fiction student of mine some years ago.)