Meiselman: The Lean Years

  • By Avner Landes
  • Tortoise Books
  • 416 pp.
  • Reviewed by Drew Gallagher
  • March 29, 2021

A deeply unlikable protagonist makes this comic-novel debut tough to enjoy.

Meiselman: The Lean Years

Avner Landes’ debut novel, Meiselman: The Lean Years, held such promise. The titular protagonist, Meiselman, is a librarian outside of Chicago, and if a writer ever wants to instantly appeal to readers, just set the novel in a library or bookstore and you’ve already gained their sympathies. After all, librarians are selfless and noble, eschewing riches and fame for the general wellbeing and advancement of society.

Meiselman is also a devoted Chicago White Sox fan who takes time out of his busy schedule to watch games on TV with his father. Landes even references an incident from the 1990 season where journeyman player Steve Lyons gained notoriety for dropping his pants to clean dirt from his undergarments after a dive into first base. (Search “Steve Lyons” on YouTube; it’s the first clip that comes up.)

Lyons holds a special place in my heart: Our paths crossed in 1983 when he was a minor-leaguer and I was a starry-eyed kid sheepishly asking for an autograph. He told me to hold his glove while he signed my program and then gave me the ball that was in it. Lyons’ baseball card is taped to my desk as I write this review; the ball sits on a shelf nearby.

Close at hand, too, is a book-jacket blurb from Sam Lipsyte extolling the triumph of Meiselman. Lipsyte is a comedic writer of the highest order. His word is good enough for me.

Alas, a not-so-funny thing happened on the way to the forum: Meiselman is more off-putting than hilarious, due mostly to the protagonist being an asshole with no redeeming qualities and a lifelong penchant for masturbating to such diverse images as his grandmother in a bathing suit or his boss — at age 12 — dressed for her bat mitzvah. (In fairness, he didn’t realize the black-and-white photo he once pleasured himself to was Grandma, but his mother still found it disturbing enough to send him to a therapist.)

Look, Larry David taught us that being master of one’s domain can be hysterical (see “The Contest” episode of “Seinfeld”), and while I’m certain that other characters throughout literature — beyond Portnoy — have engaged in vigorous self-love, we’ve mostly been spared having to read about it.

Oh, and our hero also has sex with the crease between the mattress and box spring beneath his wife while she desperately feigns sleep. He is then flummoxed the next morning when she hurries off to work with nary a word. (Count lack of self-awareness as another of Meiselman’s endearing traits.)

There are certainly readers who might laugh at a schlubby misanthrope’s hapless wanks, and only the unsuspecting Posturepedic truly suffers in the episode above. But then there’s Meiselman’s treatment of his elderly neighbor, a Holocaust survivor. He despises her because she has the audacity to make annoying yardwork-related noises while doing yardwork, thereby interrupting his profound thoughts.

When that same neighbor asks him for help with a chore, he ignores her, rationalizing that, despite her prosthetic leg, she is more than capable of doing it herself. Days later, her son calls Meiselman and asks him to check on his mother because he can’t reach her.

Meiselman finds her dead from a head injury likely sustained while performing the chore he’d refused to help with. When an investigating police officer comforts Meiselman and points out that he has a little blood on his shoes, Meiselman cleans it off with a pair of his wife’s underpants that he then stuffs in his pocket for a disturbing number of days.

The story, which spans just one week, leads up to a night where Meiselman will moderate a library talk by a despised figure from his youth who’s now a renowned author. To prepare, he figures that he should probably read the author’s book, which has generated a modicum of controversy in the local Jewish community. But he’s busy with other librarian duties, which include helping an attractive undergrad plagiarize a report on Shakespeare. Since he doesn’t have time to read the entire book, he skips to the end:

“The book’s final chapter opens with the book’s protagonist, Ely, visiting a concentration camp in Poland while suffering a flare-up of raging hemorrhoids. Meiselman does not even share such information with his wife out of fear it will repulse her, although she has no problem telling him about the occasional flare-up, even sticking a finger back there and giving it a long itch in front of him. This attack of hemorrhoids in a crematorium surely is not the integral part of the book, the passage feeding the controversy, the part that needs countering. Moreover, the reading is making his lids heavy…”

Avner Landes is a skilled writer, but it would be more welcome to see his talents focused on something other than hemorrhoids or an utterly repellent everyman. Still, the foundation of a redemptive novel is in here somewhere, and maybe there’s merit in an author defying expectations and presenting a clod so irredeemable as to be unforgettable. Or maybe not.

Drew Gallagher is a freelance writer residing in Fredericksburg, Virginia.

Like what we do? Click here to support the nonprofit Independent!
comments powered by Disqus