Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Chocolate candy with a bitter center - The Merry-Go-Round Man by John Rosenman

Greetings, commie!
A few months ago I posted an interview with John Rosenman, known for his sci-fi and fantasy novels. Today I am posting a review of his nostalgic novel The Merry-Go-Round Man.

Do you believe you can shape your future, determine your destiny? One spring day in 1954, three sixth grade boys make a bet: the one who can climb first to the top of a small green merry-go-round outside their school will be “Champ for life!” For the rest of his days he’ll be “on Easy Street!” So they engage in a “mad scramble . . . clambering over each other with murderous intent,” and eventually one of them reaches the summit and stands triumphant, lording it over the others. He is the merry-go-round man.
The Merry-Go-Round Man is a novel about three boys growing up in the so-called innocent days of the Eisenhower fifties. It’s about rites of passage, loss of innocence, sexual initiation, racism, and much more . Of the three boys, Johnny Roth is central. He possesses two transcendent gifts which are only beginning to emerge as the novel begins. One of them is the ability to box or fight, something he deeply fears. The other ability is artistic and mystical. He is a natural expressionistic painter of vast potential. Unfortunately, Johnny’s father, an Orthodox Jew, hates both of these pursuits, and his opposition tears Johnny apart.

Of the two other boys, Lee Esner grows up to be a gifted football player with what looks like a lucrative pro career ahead of him. He also has a flair for attracting beautiful girls. Is he the merry-go-round man? The third boy, Jimmy Wiggins, is black and from the ghetto. Attending an elite white school with Johnny and Lee, his naive love for a pretty white girl is destroyed by her cruel racism. Another rite of passage. Symbols such as a burning Buddhist monk make us ask whether anyone is really The Merry-Go-Man in life. 

My thoughts:
A merry-go-round is perceived as a symbol of innocence, of cloudless childhood, but in John Rosenman's novel The Merry-Go-Round Man, opening in 1950s Ohio, it becomes a symbol of competition, temptation and hidden menace. In 1950's America was on the cusp of two major movements: the civil rights movement and the sexual revolution. The three main characters - Jimmy, Johnny and Lee - all from different social circles, are products of their era. They are no strangers to the prejudices and misconceptions. They share enough universal boyish interests to stay friends, yet they had already had enough brushes with the outside world to start building invisible fortifications around themselves. I noticed that many reviewers pointed out Johnny as the most interesting character in the book, but I was particularly moved by the delicate and complicated plight of Jimmy, a black boy whose mother goes out of her way to send him to a white school. She wants to see her son succeed in the mainstream society, against all odds, but that does not prevent her from referring to him as "little nigger". I think it would be hypocritical of us to pretend that we are a "color-blind" society. We are not. And we certainly were not in 1950s. African American children who are hurled into a predominantly white environment, often find themselves ostracized by both sides. Even at the age of 12, Jimmy Wiggins already realizes his precarious social status. Same is true for Johnny, who is still being referred to as "kike". Now that's a word you don't hear much on the streets these days, but it doesn't mean that the sentiment of anti-semitism does not exist.

The author does a marvelous job of defying cliches, redefining the symbols, using them in new creative ways, and highlighting the difference between innocence and ignorance. These two concepts are often used interchangeably. Despite the seemingly idyllic setting, The Merry-Go-Round Man is not a typical piece of nostalgic Americana. It's like a chocolate candy in a pastel wrapper with a bitter center.

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