Tuesday, March 11, 1980
Fiction International reviews Richard Grayson's With Hitler in New York in its current issue:
Issue 12 (1980)
Richard Grayson, With Hitler in New York
"If you have any complaints about With Hitler in New York," the author declares in his dust jacket copy, "address them to the anarchist whose bomb snuffed out the life of the Czar. I take no responsibility for this." This incident, according to Richard Grayson, "led to the Russian pogroms and to the anti-Semitic May laws of 1882." To these latter events, Grayson claims that we owe the myriad contributions of Jewish people to American culture: from Woody Allen and Lenny Bruce to Al Jolson and the Ziegfeld follies; from Nathanael West and Philip Roth to Father Coughlin; and from Mark Spitz to the condominium culture of southern Florida." And last, but presumably not least, to that sequence of events we can attribute this book of stories by Richard Grayson.
Perhaps Grayson should have included the Marx Brothers in his list, for it is their brand of zany humor which this collection frequently – though often unsuccessfully – endeavors to achieve. In the title story, a German character named Hitler visits friends in New York. Together, they do the ordinary things Americans routinely do, such as watch television, swim, and go out to dinner. In this anomaly lies the humor but also the failure of this story. It is amusing, certainly, to see Hitler as an ordinary tourist. Yet it is also disappointing, especially to the reader of Ishmael Reed, E.L. Doctorow, and other contemporary writers who have given us such memorable and outrageously hilarious treatments of historical figures in fictional settings. The mere title "With Hitler in New York" creates expectations which the story fails to satisfy.
It is worth noting that despite its title, this book does not belong on the growing list of works which have recently taken a serious interest in the personalities and/or victims of the Third Reich. (Aside from the countless popular novels on Third Reich themes, there have been such works by a number of highly regarded writers: Sophie's Choice by William Styron, The Führer Bunker by W.D. Snodgrass, and several poems from Ai's recent book, The Killing Floor, just to name a few.) It is certainly appropriate that serious writers are becoming concerned with the consequences of fascist thought and practice. This being he case, Grayson's deadpan treatment of Hitler comes across as, at best, cute.
Cuteness is frequently a shortcoming among these stories. Often, clever ideas are not adequately developed. Consequently, some stories such as "Chief Justice Burger, Teen Idol," "Classified Personal," and "The Finest Joe Colletti Story Ever Written (So Far)" seem facile.
Yet some of these pieces are successful. "Lincoln on the Couch" is a skillful portrait of the sixteenth President; and while it may be implausible as history, the story effectively presents an unexpected view of Lincoln as something other than epoch-making paradigm. "But In a Thousand Other Worlds" is perhaps the most successful of the humorous pieces. It is the story of a mediocre story that strives to be published. In the course of its odyssey, "But in a Thousand Other Worlds" is condemned as immoral by John Gardner. It retaliates by biting Gardner on the leg.
Despite his preoccupation with nihilist humor, Grayson is at his best in his serious pieces. "Wednesday Night at Our House," "The Princess from the Land of Porcelain," and "Kirchbachstrasse 121, 2800 Bremen" are the strongest stories in the book. All of them sensitively probe the dynamics of personalities and relationships.
David Lionel Smith