Next to the “on the road” theme, the immigrant’s story may have provided the most telling and poignant moments in American literature. There have been so many of them it’s hard to imagine that anyone can find a new variation. But recently some good new writers, writing in the boundaries between popular and serious literature, have explored the idea that immigrants to this country brought not only their history and their philosophies, but quite literally smuggled in their gods and demons as well. Neil Gaiman, who will be in town July 7 at the Michigan Theater, has gotten good mileage out of this idea. Helene Wecker changes it a bit and in very interesting ways in her first novel, The Golem and the Jinni.
The golem is a legendary creature from the Jewish Diaspora. In those stories, certain rabbis, trained in the arcana of sacred texts, could shape clay and bring it to life. The creature would be devoted to its master’s will, had the strength of many men, and would defend the master from all attacks. It’s easy to understand the uses of such a creature, real or not, in defending a community that was under regular attack.
The jinn are the magical creatures of the Arabic-speaking desert people (one of them is called a jinni or, yes, a genie, although a different creature from the one Barbara Eden played throughout the childhood of many boomers). Although the jinn could assume many forms, they were actually made of fire and lived just outside the usual limitations of human sight. Again, it seems the perfect magical creature of a desert people. Humans were usually the objects of the jinn’s pranks, but particularly powerful wizards might be able to capture a jinni and force it to fulfill their wishes.
Helene Wecker’s genius is that she finds both of these creatures in late nineteenth-century New York, and puts them both down on the Lower East Side, the golem in the Yiddish-speaking tenements and the jinni in the area known as Little Syria. Most of the people around them can’t recognize them for what they are, but their magical qualities allow them to recognize each other, even if they are puzzled and more than a little frightened by what they see. And, you guessed it, they are thrown together to fight evil and forge an improbably and weirdly moving bond of love. Wecker is clearly enjoying herself, but she is able to keep her story from ever slipping into gratuitous silliness, and the plot keeps the reader racing ahead to see what might happen next. In addition, she creates another great picture of old New York, adding a lovely magical element to the myth of our greatest city. I’m betting that The Golem and the Jinni will be one of the big books of the summer.
Wecker reads at Nicola’s Books on July 22.
This review has been corrected since it appeared in the July 2013 Ann Arbor Observer. The name of the actress who who played a TV genie has been corrected.