Someone to Run With
by David Grossman
Published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux
343 pages, 2004
Buy it online
A Dovish Dream
Reviewed by Mark Sorkin
David Grossman, the author of six novels and three works of nonfiction, is considered one of Israel's finest and most contentious writers. In his dispatches on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, most notably 1988's The Yellow Wind, he comes across as a humanist who is highly attuned to the suffering on both sides and tirelessly engaged in the search for an equitable solution.
Grossman's fiction, on the other hand, steers clear of those affairs. He is a masterful narrator of adolescent solipsism, and his protagonists, typically awkward or overgrown boys, are more concerned with their personal dramas than the historical backdrops against which they unfold. For Grossman, writing fiction is not exactly a form of escapism but rather a means toward transcendence. "It is so exhilarating and rejuvenating to have a story help extricate me from the dispassion that life in this disaster zone dooms me to," he wrote in Death As a Way of Life, a collection of essays published last spring. "When I write, or imagine, or create even one new phrase, it is as if I have succeeded in overcoming, for a brief time, the arbitrariness and tyranny of circumstance."
The English translation of Grossman's latest novel, Someone to Run With, is welcome, indeed. Written in the late 1990s, the book is set during the waning days of the Oslo era, shortly before Grossman's hopes for peace were dashed by the outbreak of the second intifada. In keeping with the author's reluctance to mix fiction with political commentary, there's hardly a Palestinian to be found in these pages, and only passing reference to cross-cultural anxieties. The story follows two Israeli teenagers -- Assaf, a lanky errand boy in Jerusalem's City Hall, and Tamar, a runaway with "eyes that saw too much" -- and Dinka, the golden Labrador that eventually brings them together. Grossman's fluid prose translates well into English and carries the reader smoothly from scene to scene, navigating from Assaf's flights of fancy to Tamar's streetwise schemes.
Grossman has sprinkled a good deal of destiny into this story, such that by the time the two puppy lovers meet, their otherwise implausible romance seems inexorable. When the story begins, Assaf is poised on the brink of independence. He is spending his summer estranged from his parents, who are tending to his sister in America. He is also estranged from his childhood friends, who have coupled off and left him alone with his computer games. Assaf has plenty of free time on his hands and a head filled with fantasies, which is to say that the potential for self-invented adventure is high. "Sometimes it is so easy to determine the exact moment when something -- Assaf's life, for instance -- starts to change, irreversibly, forever," Grossman writes.
Enter Dinka, the plot incarnate. When the stray dog turns up at City Hall, Assaf is tasked with finding her owner. But Dinka immediately takes charge, dragging Assaf at breakneck speed through the streets of Jerusalem in search of Tamar. Assaf knows nothing about the girl or her whereabouts, but Dinka draws him into her world by leading him to her favorite haunts. As he meets Tamar's eccentric band of acquaintances, he gathers clues and begins to sense that Tamar is in some sort of trouble. In the meantime, he develops a healthy-sized crush on her and casts himself in an elaborate daydream as her savior. Carrying her overstuffed backpack, for example, "he tried to forget his pain by pretending that she had fainted, and fallen, without knowing it, into his care."
Tamar has embarked on a heroic quest of her own, and she has, indeed, placed herself in harm's way. Disappearing from family and friends, she has slipped into the city's seedy underground in search of her brother, Shai, a heroin junkie she hopes to rescue. She finds him holed up in a sort of halfway house for street performers and discovers that he's indentured to the thugs running the racket. In order to get close, she impersonates a wayward chanteuse and subjects herself to the gang's abuses, waiting for the perfect moment to escape with Shai in tow.
Actually, there are quite a few perfect moments in this story. Grossman thrusts the narrative forward according to an unambiguous moral scheme in which fate intervenes exactly when called upon to reward noble intentions and punish malicious ones. Similarly, characters are drawn to each other as if by forces beyond their control. Assaf imagines that "a huge magnet was pulling" him toward Tamar. For her part, Tamar sends mental telegrams to Shai and drifts rather effortlessly toward his hideout, as if he has responded by providing directions. Assaf and Tamar communicate in silence, as well. "When her eyes met Assaf's," Grossman writes, "she knew he was now seeing the same picture, in exactly the same way, perhaps even in the same words."
The accumulation of all this wish fulfillment skews the reality that's presented, inflecting it with magic. For that reason, these teenage heroes may find their best audience among young-adult readers. Assaf and Tamar are both driven by sentimental, chivalric ideals, and their aspirations are strengthened rather than checked as they make their first, tentative steps toward adulthood. But their story isn't simply an adventure in which good triumphs over evil, nor could it be summed up as a romance in which true love prevails. Someone to Run With is a willfully, perhaps defiantly, naive fantasy in which two unlikely partners overcome a series of dangerous obstacles before joining hands -- and then find themselves fulfilled in each other's company. Coming from such a relentless advocate for peace between Israel and Palestine, that sounds like the stuff of political allegory. At the very least, it's a pleasant, dovish dream. | February 2004
Mark Sorkin is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn.