A romance between a Jewish gangster and an African-American photographer provides a snapshot of discrimination in the mid-20th century in a new novel by Peter Golden.
And although the plot of Wherever There Is Light shifts among Florida, New York, New Jersey, and Paris, it draws deeply on Golden’s own memories of growing up Jewish in South Orange and Maplewood.
South Orange landmarks, like Gruning’s Ice Cream, as well as everyday aspects of the town — the gas streetlights, the Newstead neighborhood, and South Orange Middle School — all make cameo appearances.
Some of the characters in this novel came to him while sitting in traffic on the Garden State Parkway, Golden said. “Other people get aggravated,” he said. “I imagine characters.”
A journalist, biographer, and historian, Golden wrote another novel, Comeback Love, but is best known for his nonfiction work on the Soviet Jewry movement in America, O Powerful Western Star! American Jews, Russian Jews, and the Final Battle of the Cold War (Gefen Publishing House, 2012).
Golden will read from his new book at Words bookstore in Maplewood on Thursday, Nov. 5.
Golden said his research skills came in handy for his latest novel, which will be published by Simon & Schuster in November. It ties together a Jewish mobster, an elite southern African-American family, Jewish refugees from Germany, the art of photography, an emerging bohemian intellectual class in Greenwich Village and Paris, and press coverage of World War II.
It depicts a rigidly segregated Florida, where blacks could be lynched for the smallest transgression of the unwritten racial protocol; the racial discrimination facing blacks who came North to New York and New Jersey; and postwar Paris, where the social upheaval of the war offered a welcoming space for an interracial couple.
The plot is as complicated as the cast of characters is long. “I am enamored of the rich novels written in the 1950s and 1960s with complex plots and character development,” said Golden. “They’re out of style now. People don’t have the patience for it.”
Golden traces the inspiration for the book to his college studies, when he first read James Baldwin, an African-American author to whom he frequently returns. “I have long wanted to write a novel about his position that the reason the ‘Negro question’ was so persistent and dangerous was that it was a catchall for other questions, larger questions about the self.”
By the time Wherever There Is Light starts, in the late 1920s, protagonist Julian Rose has already left his native Germany, where his father is a professor, for Newark. He gains his reputation and skills for wheeling and dealing during Prohibition as a protege of the city’s notorious real-life crime kingpin, Abner “Longy” Zwillman — also a Jew — and then amasses a fortune in real estate, allowing him to leave the Newark underworld for classier South Orange.
A secular, assimilated Jew who nonetheless talks to God, Rose thinks deeply about the morality of his own actions and those of others (particularly with regard to violence). He arranges for his parents, still in Germany as the Nazis rise to power, to be rescued by a college for black students, founded by the daughter of a former slave, where his father will teach and live. When he goes to visit his parents on the campus of the fictional Lovewood College, he meets Kendall Wakefield, the educated daughter of the college’s president.
Defying her mother’s expectations, Kendall decides to pursue her dream of becoming an artist, and then a photographer. She moves, first to New York and New Jersey, and then to Paris to do so.
A character who works for an African-American newspaper in Pittsburgh provides a portal to the black press of the day, which, Golden said, was “absolutely, constantly critical and loudly so of Nazis, something the mainstream press did not do. They were relentless on the Nazis, comparing their efforts to lynching.”
The Nazis, meanwhile, seized on a reverse comparison. “They’d say, ‘Don’t tell us how to treat our Jews. Look how you treat your Negroes.’”
Although Golden acknowledges that postwar Paris was “a complicated place,” he added, “Paris was a much easier place for mixed-race couples. Cafe society was amazing for them. It was a place where races could sit together.” And while the Holocaust cast a long shadow over the city, “Where life was so cheap, they were forced to ask questions about life and meaning.”
Although the novel comes to a close during the 1960s, it doesn’t tackle the racial strife that would come to characterize the city. “Newark during the time of the riots brings up a whole other conversation and a whole bunch of questions” that are not part of the novel, the author said.
Golden has intentionally turned stereotypes on their heads in the book, and uses the unlikely figure of the mobster to explore assimilation. The choice arose out of his own lifelong interest in Longy Zwillman.
“I heard a lot of stories about him growing up, but not gangster stories,” said Golden, who was born in 1953. Both of his grandmothers knew him — one from grammar school and one because her father had a stall on Prince Street that was “protected” by Zwillman.
“A lot of what fascinated me was his desire to assimilate [into middle class America] and still hold onto his place in the underworld,” said Golden.