June 2010

Straddling two very different worlds

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Although its title might suggest tawdry paperbacks bought from a wire rack in a dimly lit bookshop, Joshua Braff’s new novel Peep Show is actually a comic family melodrama and coming-of-age story. Set in 1970s New York amid two drastically different cultures, Hasidic Judaism and Times Square peep shows and porn theaters, the novel takes a dash of “Seinfeld” blended with a pinch of Philip Roth to tell the story of David Arbus, a teenager caught in a parental tug-of-war. The opponents: David’s mother, with a strong devotion to her conservative Hasidic faith, and David’s father, who runs a Times Square theater quickly evolving into a seamy adult venue.

When the novel opens, David lives with his mother and his sister Debra. His mother simultaneously rids herself of her ex-husband’s TV, books, photographs and the secular life they represent, and tries to convert her son to her orthodox Jewish faith, which commands strict adherence to Jewish law and rigid codes of conduct. Unable to see his mother’s side of things, David chooses to live with his father, who is struggling to keep his burlesque theater in Times Square from sinking too far into porn and peep. A budding photographer, David begins to freelance in the adult entertainment trade, not only to help his father but also to defy his mother, as only a teenaged boy could. He soon discovers he has to take care of his ailing father, as well as help with the business. As David moves between two strange worlds, he struggles to understand his family and come to terms with his parents’ separation.

Although Peep Show could be a heavy-handed family drama, Braff chooses to keep the story light, sketching several funny but poignant scenes, as when David’s father liberates Debra and her friend Sarah for a beach weekend in Atlantic City, with David’s mother in hot pursuit to prevent the girls’ corruption. The comic thrust, however, never detracts from the novel’s intimate peek into a divided family, and the lesson of compromise the family members—especially David and his mother—learn is necessary to keep all ties from dissolving.

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