Rock/pop Clubs by Night
Rock/Pop Club Directory
Rock/Pop Bands in Town
Jazz Clubs by Night
Jazz Club Directory
Jazz Bands in Town
Thirty pages into Rafi Zabor’s sorrow-drenched I, Wabenzi, he remembers the moment when he knew his parents would die. "I woke to the unexpected sound of water," he writes. He runs down the hall to discover his parents stranded in a bathroom filling like a torpedoed submarine. "It rilled up over the bathroom doorsill — pressure behind it giving the water a bit of loft — and from around the sides of the door to an elevation of say three feet."
A mere flushing of the toilet had torn a pipe and flooded the Zabors’ Brooklyn apartment. Just a few days earlier, Zabor had performed the Heimlich maneuver on his father and dislocated the man’s ribs. Everything was falling apart, and Zabor was trying not to prolong his parents’ pain as they seethed and sighed toward their grave, one sip of milk and hot water at a time. Finally, it was over. In 1986, age 40, Zabor was parentless and free. Almost.
This meandering and word-mad book busts from this loss like a life raft on a torrent of memories. In the wake of his parents’ death, Zabor plans to set off on a spiritual journey through Turkey to Israel to "haul my mortal self back among the living," with an initial stop in Belgium, where he plans to buy a $5000 Mercedes and become a member of what one amateur ethnographer friend calls the Wabenzi clan — the people who drive Daimlers.
Fortunately, the book doesn’t make good on this trajectory because before leaving for Europe Zabor must visit his family grave, and his uncles, his friends, and his lawyer — who draws up his will on an electric typewriter at a New York deli during a smog-laden New York summer afternoon fueled by pints of seltzer. Everywhere he walks, Zabor sees one thing or another that sends him on a prose reverie about his father’s escape from Poland, the emotional strafing his father received from his sister-in-law, or some other family event. For the first 200 pages of I, Wabenzi, Zabor doesn’t make it out of Brooklyn.
Like many another, particularly Jewish, writer before him, Zabor sees family as an epic subject. But a more apt comparison than Tolstoy, Henry Roth, or Saul Bellow is jazz. A jazz drummer and critic whose 1997 novel, The Bear Comes Home, featured a grizzly who played the baritone sax, Zabor writes and riffs — each tonal shift leading to another alliterative romp, the sound of words as important as their meanings.
Most of the time, he writes beautifully, even when describing the beat-up, three-speed Chevy Malibu Classic he ditched on his quest for a Mercedes. "Its leaky air-conditioning system poked irregular holes in the planetary ozone, its black vinyl upholstery was cold in winter and an abomination in summer — that rrrrripp when you rose from it having even lightly sweated — and, although a genuine enough four-door sedan, it had been designed with rear windows which could not be rolled down. A rear butterfly window would admit a small trapezoid of breeze if you were observant enough to notice it and applied yourself sufficiently to the ambiguous and recalcitrant hasp."
Would that all of I, Wabenzi were like this. But too many sections simply scat their way into nonsense — and this is but the first in a projected multi-volume story. In the later half of the book, Zabor dips into an almost-200-page flashback about his time in a mystic Sufi colony, to which he had come in order to cleanse himself of a girlfriend’s second-term abortion. About her we hear precious little. It’s as if childhood had given Zabor his greatest gift — his outsized, hard-to-love, but utterly sincere and one-of-a-kind family. Even when he finally gets behind the wheel of a Mercedes, he seems to know that they are his only clan.
Issue Date: December 9 - 15, 2005
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