The Book of Jeremiah: A Novel in Stories
Author: Julie Zuckerman
“Inside the Labyrinth”: Review of Julie Zuckerman’s The Book of Jeremiah
Review by Hannah Phillips
American sociologist, C. Wright Mills, once wrote, “Neither the life of the individual nor the history of a society can be understood without understanding both.” A renowned professor at Columbia University in the mid-1900s, Mills studied the ways in which we connect the self to society.
I’d like to think that had Jeremiah Gerstler—the protagonist of Julie Zuckerman’s debut novel The Book of Jeremiah—existed in the same universe as Mills, the two scholars would have had a lot to discuss.
The Book of Jeremiah tells the story of one man’s place in a constantly changing world. Jeremiah is the son of Jewish immigrants and an esteemed professor of political science. He is also a husband, brother, and father. In the novel’s background, Zuckerman charts—with great craft and historical expertise—the shifting landscape of twentieth century America, marked by war, protest and reform. The result is a fascinating and artful portrayal of life in all its patterns and paradoxes, its beauties and grievances.
Zuckerman sets this novel-in-stories over the course of eight decades, a choice that feels inevitable given the complexity of her protagonist. Jeremiah is the kind of character readers love to dissect—passionate and ambitious, critical and flawed. As a child, he is rebellious, perpetually competing for the attention of his parents, teachers, and peers. This yearning for acceptance follows him throughout his adult life as he navigates marriage, fatherhood, and a career in academia.
Along the way, Zuckerman’s sharp attention to detail creates for readers a world that is rich with historical context. Jeremiah is a WWII veteran with mixed feelings about the nation’s involvement in Vietnam, as well as a Jewish academic caught between his political ambition and the loyalty he feels to his family. As readers, we watch Jeremiah fluctuate between private and public personas, as well as grapple with the outside world’s connections to even his most intimate triumphs and losses.
This is the irony of Jeremiah’s character: despite his dedication to political prowess, his expertise in predicting national trends, he often struggles to achieve the same foresight in his personal life.
Tied to Jeremiah’s own story are the stories of those he loves. There is Rikki, his caring though hot-tempered mother, whose high expectations often clash with the easygoing nature of her husband, Abe. There is Lenny, Jeremiah’s effortlessly intelligent and rule-abiding brother, and Molly, his stable and creative wife, as well as Hannah, the “dutiful daughter,” and Stu, the son Jeremiah worries will never grow up.
By bringing us into the minds of those closest to Jeremiah, Zuckerman further complicates our image of her protagonist, a character whose self-criticism can lead him to thoughts of comparison and acts of deflection. Jeremiah is many people all at once: son, brother, husband, father, professor, colleague, neighbor, veteran, activist. In each role, he exists as multiple characters—the man he wants to be, the man he imagines himself to be, the man those around him witness—and he shares this burden with the people in his life. At times, these characters are too hard on each other. At times, they are too hard on themselves.
Zuckerman’s use of a nonlinear structure contributes to this complexity. Jeremiah’s story is a collection of memories, juxtaposed to create the meaning its protagonist sometimes fails to create for himself. As readers, we delight in this omniscience, but we empathize with Jeremiah’s lack of it. The truth is, we know this story. It is the labyrinth we’ve all been inside of, the web of secrets, desires and expectations that exist between ourselves and the people we love most.
By the end of this collection, Zuckerman has created a small—and yet incredibly large—wedge of life. Jeremiah’s story is a piece of history, but it is also an intimate portrayal of love’s innerworkings. For even the worldliest reader, it’s a story that warrants a few hours of privacy, time spent simply and entirely with oneself.
Hannah Phillips recently graduated from Susquehanna University with a degree in creative writing and English education. She is the recipient of the Janet Weiss Scholarship and most recently served as the senior editor of Essay, SU’s undergraduate magazine for creative nonfiction.