Book review: Sex. drugs, art and rock and roll

By: Rabbi Rachel Esserman

There is a wise saying that tells us not to judge a book by its cover. In the case of "Broken Sleep" by Bruce Bauman (Other Press), that statement should be amended to say, "It's best not to judge this novel by its first chapter." Reading "The Songs of Salome: For Art's Sake" left me wondering why I asked for a review copy of this 600-plus page work. Fortunately, alternating chapters feature other narrators and characters. The result is a novel that impressed me not only for its scope, but its exuberant style.
The work's Jewish content can be found in "The Moses Chronicles," which focus on the non-practicing Moses Teumer and his wife, Jay, who are "proud of their Jewish cultural heritage." When Moses' treatments for cancer prove unsuccessful, the doctors tell them his only chance is to have a bone marrow transplant. Since his father deserted the family when Moses was young and he has no siblings, he turns to his mother, Hannah, for help. This forces Hannah to reveal a secret: she's not his birth mother. Moses must search for his birth parents – a search that radically changes his life.
Moses quickly learns that his birth mother is Salome Savant, the narrator of the novel's first chapter. Her sections not only include her thoughts about the art – painting, sculptures and performance art – she creates, but the reasons she spent periods of her adult life living in psychiatric wards. Her son, Alchemy – a famous rock star who wants to change the world – forms a relationship with Moses. Although Alchemy is really the heart and soul of the novel, he's never allowed to tell his own story. Instead, this remarkable and inspired character is seen through the eyes of Salome, Moses and Ricky McFinn, whom Alchemy nicknamed Ambitious Mindswallow. Ambitious narrates his own sections, "Memoirs of a Useless Good-for Nuthin'," where he dishes dirt on his early life delinquencies, his inadequacies as a human being, his drug use and everything he knows about Alchemy's private life.
"Broken Sleep" looks at the United States and its political and artistic development from the 1940s to the year 2020. Chapters alternate between time periods, which forces readers to piece together not only the plot, but to decide what the characters truly know about each other. What's remarkable is that Bauman manages to resolve numerous plot lines in a satisfying way, while also offering many surprises about the reality of his characters' lives.
The novel is not always easy to read. Salome's meandering thoughts about human nature clearly show her disconnection from this world. The political musings of Alchemy and Moses also force readers to concentrate. For example, at one point, the two men "contemplated their own theories regarding the psychic rumblings of what was then the middle ground of American society: a seemingly pleasant world held aloft by the repressive rules of black and white, right and wrong, and where all the questions have answers, no matter whether the physical plane was a canvas of sorrowful grays and unending row of stolid, protective redbrick apartment buildings, developments of dingy doublewides, or shiny new tract homes." Alchemy has "specific ideas" on how to change this, "from passing a one hundred percent inheritance tax to doing away with private education and eliminating the electoral college."
However, while "Broken Sleep" contains numerous thoughts about politics and art, it's the personal story that creates the greatest connection. To discuss the most interesting plot twists would ruin the surprises and the fun. This is not a novel for everyone: the complex, twisting prose demands your attention. It contains profanity, promiscuity, drug use and general bad behavior. My main complaint is that I didn't realize until I read almost 500 pages that there is a five-page list of characters featured in the concluding section of the book. That would have saved me time when I turned back trying to remember which of the 100 or more people to whom the author introduced me a particular character was. Yet, I found myself content to plow through the excess prose and waited impatiently to learn what would happened next. In the end, I'm glad that I didn't judge this book by its unusual opening.