Near the start of Austin Ratner’s accomplished debut novel, The Jump Artist, a character named Philipp Halsman is shown a jar containing his father’s head. At first, Philipp doesn’t believe the head is his dad’s—partly because he doesn’t want to believe it, and partly because the spiritless, decapitated visage is so unlike that of the living man, so transformed. So Philipp asks the creepy forensic pathologist Dr. Meixner to lift the head’s lip, hoping to identify his father’s teeth. This is what Philipp sees next (and what the reader sees with him): “Meixner inserted his naked finger into the mouth and drew up the lip, revealing the teeth. There was a gold tooth there, wet and dull like a coin under cold seawater.”
Philipp’s uncertainty does not entirely vanish at the glint of gold—and that’s what makes the scene artful instead of simply maudlin or grotesque. We already know that his father’s smile was full of precious metal, but the son’s denial is too powerful to be erased by such seemingly incontrovertible evidence. We can feel in this moment the separation Philipp strives to create between himself and the wider reality of the world, a world in which he has been wrongfully accused of murdering the man who raised him.
The Jump Artist takes its central matter from history. There was a real man named Philipp Halsman who was charged with patricide in Austria in the late 1920s. Halsman was a Jew, and thanks to the political climate of Austria his Jewishness was a widely publicized aspect of the case. Fortunately, in Ratner’s hands, all this material is transmuted into engaging fiction, not pedantic reportage. The novel’s protagonist feels like a thoughtful presence; we understand the historical material through Philipp’s perspective, which is well measured, complicated, convincingly dark. What was it like to be Jewish and to be on trial for patricide in that time and place? In the world of the novel, like this:
Officers pushed Philipp out with the jurors into the damp, chill hallway. They walked clumsily and too fast. Then they went out into the thin, gray rain falling over the steps and the angry faces and signs, the yelling and pushing in the rain. The jurors hid their faces under their coats, but Philipp had no coat and the rain fell on his head.
This is The Jump Artist at its best: restrained, purposeful, not over-eager about the interior life of the historical Halsman but fascinated with how the rain feels on the wrongly accused man’s skin, how significant it is that he has no coat. This tells us everything we need to know about the character’s vulnerability.
The novel’s most impressive feat, it seems to me, is the way it fashions a character who feels the anger and dread inherent in such vulnerability—and then shows the character’s attempt to cauterize that anger and dread. Perhaps for this reason, I often wasn’t convinced by Ratner’s attempts to penetrate Philipp’s more chaotic moments of consciousness; there are several of these attempts peppered throughout the story, italicized passages meant to delve into the character’s wheeling mind, but none has the suggestive power of the closely observed worldly details in other parts of the book.
Also interesting is the question of how The Jump Artist (an odd title for this novel, really) does and does not fit in with other contemporary Jewish fiction and other narratives that spring from or revisit the Holocaust era. In light of Vivian Gornick’s recent provocations about the end of Jewish-American writing, we might wonder if Ratner is working a narrative vein that has been more or less strip-mined by now. Gornick, who not long ago accused Michael Chabon and Jonathan Safran Foer of writing with “open nostalgia” that undermined the meaning of their fiction, most likely wouldn’t have a great deal of patience for The Jump Artist. But I read the book with pleasure, and I’m interested to see what Austin Ratner does next.