The Boy and the Lake

Adam Pelz­man

  • Review
By – February 22, 2021

Adam Pelzman’s third nov­el, The Boy and the Lake, finds teenaged Ben­jamin Baum new­ly dis­placed from Wee­quahic, NJ, Philip Roth’s famed neigh­bor­hood, fol­low­ing the Newark riots in 1967. Along with many oth­er fam­i­lies from Wee­quahic, the Baums move to Red Mead­ow Lake, a qui­et town in north­west­ern New Jer­sey; what had been a haven of vaca­tion homes becomes a com­mu­ni­ty of per­ma­nent homes, decked out with new cab­i­netry, two-car garages, and oth­er lux­u­ries their homes in Newark couldn’t sup­ply. In this new world, every­one knows every­one: peo­ple play ten­nis with their rab­bi at the local club; they shop for clothes in the sec­ond­hand store Ben’s moth­er opened in their base­ment. All is great, all is com­mu­nal, as it should be — until, that is, Ben dis­cov­ers his neigh­bor, Helen, dead down by the lake.

Told in a blend of mur­der-mys­tery and com­ing-of-age prose, The Boy and the Lake acts as a trib­ute to the his­to­ry of Ashke­nazi Jews in north­ern New Jer­sey. Pelz­man dots this nar­ra­tive with his­tor­i­cal facts and anec­dotes, mak­ing cer­tain pas­sages read more like a text­book rather than a nov­el: Ben’s best friend recites sto­ries she’s read about protests against the Viet­nam War and about Thur­good Marshall’s appoint­ment to the Supreme Court, and Ben him­self tells the read­er, in sim­ple, explana­to­ry prose, about immi­gra­tion pat­terns of East­ern Euro­pean Jews to the U.S., how one group thought them­selves bet­ter than the oth­er, how these cul­tures var­ied. Although these pas­sages veer from the novel’s cen­tral sto­ry — Ben’s soli­tary inves­ti­ga­tion of Helen’s death — they also do a great job of recon­struct­ing a time and a once-vibrant neighborhood.

How­ev­er, these digres­sions also have the effect of mak­ing the nov­el feel a bit mean­der­ing at times. Along with the his­tor­i­cal asides, there are mul­ti­ple nar­ra­tive threads that are explored at length — Ben’s first drink and his grow­ing depen­dence on alco­hol, his uncle’s stand-up career — which, although inter­est­ing in their own right, don’t always have a clear con­nec­tion with Ben’s quest to find Helen’s killer.

Nev­er­the­less, even if the his­tor­i­cal pas­sages and these nar­ra­tive asides don’t inter­est a giv­en read­er, the sus­pense of the cen­tral nar­ra­tive like­ly will. As with all clas­sic who­dunits, mul­ti­ple char­ac­ters are cast in the narrator’s sus­pi­cious gaze, while clues and hints steadi­ly stack up. The sto­ry broad­ens, ten­sion builds. This seem­ing­ly idyl­lic vaca­tion-town-turned-home­town proves itself cor­rupt. What had been kept beneath the sur­face, rises.

Ben­jamin Selesnick lives and writes in New Jer­sey. His writ­ing has appeared in decomP, Lunch Tick­et, San­ta Fe Writ­ers’ Project Quar­ter­ly, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions. He holds an MFA in fic­tion from Rutgers-Newark.

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