After Goldie disappeared
by Keith Taylor
Award-winning short story writer Nancy Reisman, U-M visiting professor for the past several years, has written one of those novels that alter your perception of the world before you even realize they've done so. At the very beginning of The First Desire, we are told that Goldie Cohen has disappeared. No one knows where she has gone, and she left no clues. It is 1929, just before the economic collapse that would herald the Great Depression. The Cohen family lives in Buffalo, New York, where Goldie's father, Abe, a widower, owns a jewelry store and is beginning what will be a lengthy romantic liaison with Lillian Schumacher. He has four daughters and one son, all in early adulthood at the beginning of the novel.
Although Reisman's characters will move through a large piece of American history before the book ends in 1950, it is safe to say that Goldie's disappearance is the major plot device around which this novel turns. Through her absence we enter the lives and emotions of her sisters, Sadie, Jo, and Celia, and Irving, her brother, who has raised irresponsibility to a quiet art. Inside the emotional lives of these people, this novel finds its power.
And The First Desire is a very powerful book, despite or perhaps because of its deceptively quiet presentation. There is nothing flashy about the action or about the conflicts. Sadie is competent and admirable. Jo appears tough but soon isolates herself in her own tiny world. Celia is damaged and uncertain, someone for whom the cliché "differently abled" certainly applies. Irving is a small-time liar and cheat, who will try, not really successfully, to charm his way through life.
Nancy Reisman's success is measured by how much she makes us care about these people. Her prose is evocative, the chapters alternating among the various points of view to yield glimpses into the characters' inner lives. Here is a moment near the end of the
book where Sadie, the most "ordinary" of the siblings, recognizes the fragility of her world:
Sometimes a free afternoon downtown Main Street flooded with speeding coats and hats, and the rush of voices, and the brick buildings gilded and slightly pink, the clouds orange and violet before dusk seems wholly enough. It is a good life, she's sure, though she doesn't know why it seems so tentative and airy, or why the past seems to spring up at her as if in defiance, or how to name what she feels....
As the novel moves to its conclusion, as Goldie's disappearance is resolved and understood by the people who have loved her, I think most readers will find themselves, as I did, completely caught up in the small world of the Cohen family, completely convinced by the rightness of this novelist's vision.
Nancy Reisman reads from her novel at Shaman Drum Bookshop on Wednesday, September 22.
[Originally published in September, 2004.]