While wondering who to approach with my latest novel, Grave Men, I was reading an agent’s bio when I saw that she didn’t want to be approached with any more “white guy quests.” I chuckled and thought that disqualified me from the slushy pile of hopefuls who might wind up in her inbox, but then I got to thinking. What’s so bad about a white guy quest? I mean, I’ve always liked reading about Odysseus and Huck and Holden and Atticus. I’ve enjoyed their searches for identity, for freedom and for a way to make sense of the chaos of their lives.
But I get it.
In literature, and even more importantly, in the real world white guys enjoy a status they don’t really deserve. And even if some do deserve it, they still benefit from a status that is confirmed and protected by a combination of geography and DNA. We saw this undeserved status on full display over the past two weeks with the unbridled histrionics of Barty O’Kavanaugh, mild mannered federal judge turned indignant pit bull, snarling angrily at the world as he decried the forces evil that were attempting to keep him from a job promotion. Sadly, a lot of angry people cheered him on. But many others watched in amazement, knowing a woman or a person of color could never voice their anger with such rancor. Seriously, before the saliva had even hit the floor, a woman would have been slapped with a badge of shame and a person of color would have been branded a brute.
Could you imagine Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter, standing up to the great men of Salem by yelling, by stomping her feet and calling out hypocrites? Maybe she could hold up her daughter, Pearl, and deliver a fierce lecture on the ways men abuse power and how rarely they suffer the same consequences as the women with whom they fall from grace. Or could you imagine Tom Robinson from To Kill a Mockingbird? Instead of meekly offering up “Yes, sir” and “No, sir” when questioned by white lawyers Finch and Gilmer, what if he responded with cold, unfiltered reason. What if he called out the racists in the courtroom and told the lawyer for the prosecution that characterizing him as a brute was, in fact, an act of evil. What if, when he made the mistake of saying he felt sorry for a white woman, Tom Robinson doubled down like an entitled white man, and said that of course he felt sorry for the people who’d accused him: he felt sorry for anyone, black or white, who was so ignorant and so fettered by hate?
I get it because that literary agent is actually a lot like me, fatigued by the status quo, the need to keep fighting the same battles over and over, and, in her case, by the parade of bland protagonists arriving at her door.
I also get it because I’m a Jew. I may be white and male, but I’m something else, too, a faith, a language and a common history that teaches me justice and shapes my fiction. Yet I still struggle with how Jewish to make my Jewish characters. And I’m embarrassed by the fact that so many of them wear Judaism as they would a baseball cap, putting it on when they want to enjoy the status of being “other” and taking it off when they want to blend in. Perhaps, this is just my way of being true to my second-generation Russian father and my second-generation Irish mother, but sometimes it’s hard to view my character’s hiding–that occasional desire to pass, which I know well–as something other than a white guy quest and, perhaps, a poor imitation at that.
But then I take a few steps back, and I see my latest protagonist, a middle-aged father of two named Gershwin, trying his best to not be Huck or Holden or Atticus. Gershwin is not as much a hero as he is an ally. He knows that Atticus Finch defended Tom Robinson, a black man falsely accused of rape, by fighting the stereotype that Tom was little more than a brute. And, like me, Gershwin would be bothered by the fact that Atticus did little to lift up the man. Atticus was wise and paternal, the center of a great novel and a hero to his daughter. Yet his client never rose above the dirt on his overalls, the spectacle of his deformed arm, his obvious dignity or the kindness that somehow made it even easier for bigots to hate him.
Atticus is a valiant defender but not a true ally. The same can be said for Huck Finn, whose quest is simply to run away from all the ugliness of society. It is a fitting goal for a boy surrounded by so much violence and hate. But despite his charm, Huck will always be a tragic hero, an adolescent who may adore Jim, Miss Watson’s Jim, but who ultimately refuses to let him be a man.
In my novel Gershwin also runs. He runs from a school where he has no future. His quest to build a life may seem familiar on the surface. His identity, however, does not take over the narrative. At crucial moments, he steps to the side and stops talking, stops telling people what he wants. Instead of running toward an answer, he helps others by letting them become new on their own. My challenge with this novel has always been not to let him disappear, to endow him with interesting qualities but also to define him by the women he trusts, the neighbors he relies on and his understanding that he cannot fix things alone.
So, maybe I should submit this novel to an agent who is sick of white guy quests. I could explain to her that it’s really about the end of the white guy quest. Even my title suggests as much, right? Maybe she’d like that. Maybe she’d like how strong women and biracial children wrestle the narrative from Gershwin. How he’s a little like Macduff, but without the kilt or the sword. Maybe she’d like my female characters and enjoy the ending. Maybe she’d even forgive the biggest irony of all, that I, the white male novelist, am now an insider and an outsider, that even if I am capable of good art and real sympathy, I will always be cursed by brothers who take things they’ve neither earned or deserve.