Does Art Matter

Eduardo Halfon
The Polish Boxer (Bellevue Literary Press, 2012)

Despite the author’s intentions, The Polish Boxer reads more like a novel than short story collection, thanks in large part to its momentum. Halfon creates a likable, flawed main character (a smoking, more impetuous version of himself) and seeds the books overarching questions early: What is our relationship to art? What is the impact of our heritage on us?

The first question, on art, is explored through Halfon-as-literature-professor seeking out a promising young poet who dropped out of school; as a Cervantes scholar attending a Mark Twain conference; as man with “jazz in his gonads” who befriends a Serbian pianist, Milan. Through these early chapters, Halfon asks: What art is for? Why do we do it? What does it do to us? Does art matter, in the long run?

Halfon explores the second question, on identity, through the story of his Polish grandfather, who (or wasn’t) saved at Auschwitz by the Polish Boxer of the title. Fictional Halfon is flirting with an Israeli backpacking girl in a bar in Antigua when they realize they both have family named Tenenbaum from Poland. Thinks fictional-Halfon: “I imagined a novel about two Polish siblings who thought their entire family had been exterminated but who all of a sudden find each other after sixty years apart, thanks to the grandchildren, a Guatemalan writer and an Israeli hippie, who meet by chance in a Scottish bar that isn’t even Scottish in Antigua, Guatemala.”

The chapter Postcards is an achievement. It details postcards sent to fictional Halfon by the pianist, Milan. The images on the postcards (for example: a woman in a bikini from New Orleans) are in stark relief to the stories Milan has scribbled on them, about the history of his own family, his Gypsy heritage, Romany language and culture, and his own place as outside both the Serbian and Gypsy worlds, and his struggle for his own identity.

When Milan’s postcards stop ominously, fictional-Halfon goes to Belgrade, and deep into Gypsy subculture, to find him. Fast-paced chapters describe this Jewish Guatemalan out of place and running out of time to find his friend. He gets so close. The climax Halfon achieves is erotic, and literary, and meaningful, and satisfying, and unsatisfying at once.

In his denouement, Halfon’s questions converge. Halfon-the-literature-professor struggles to prepare for a conference on “Literature Tearing Through Reality.”  He learns that the meaning he ascribed to his grandfather’s story of the Polish boxer may not have been the correct meaning. And after his grandfather passes, he resists the weight of Jewishness as part of his own identity.

In sum, The Polish Boxer is fast, and mysterious, and erotic, and satisfying, and unsatisfying…much like fictional-Halfon’s girlfriend’s orgasm drawings. The Polish Boxer creates space for equivocation on the themes of art and identity, raises questions (doesn’t answer them), all while taking the reader on a sexy, transcontinental adventure in less than 200 pages.

Are you working on something similar? Do you wish you were? Are you curious about how he does it? Leave a comment or question below: We’ll send one commenter a free autographed copy of The Polish Boxer.

Wake Up, Read and then Write

Eduardo Halfon
The Polish Boxer (Bellevue Literary Press, 2012)
Brooklyn to me has this appeal. I don’t know if it’s the writers. But it’s so beautiful.

Last Tuesday, in Ted & Honey – huddled over mugs of Earl Grey tea – we rapped with Eduardo Halfon about publishing, practice, the craft, and his first novel (story collection?), The Polish Boxer, translated into English this year.

On being published: Once you get there you realize how much further you have to go. You get there and think, I’ve arrived. But then you realize how much more you have to do.

On partying: If I go out, I can’t write the following day, I can’t work. Especially when I’m trying to write. If my head’s somewhere else, I can’t do it. If my choices are a bar or work, I’m going to choose work.

On his writing / reading practice: For me, reading comes first. I have hundreds of books in process. Stacks of books all around the bed. It drives my wife crazy. It’s very irrational. So basically, I wake up … and I read.  Then at 9:40, I make coffee. that triggers something. I write from 10 to 1 or 2. I do it daily. Even on weekends, holidays. It’s taxing on my wife. But since I only work a few hours, I need to register my work daily.

On The Polish Boxer: It came together very spontaneously. I just let whatever happens happen. I seem to be writing collections. My mind works as a collectionist. I collect. If I’m interested in this, I’ll collect stories about this. From my readings, people can think the entire book is about my grandfather. Each chapter was written as a story. It’s self contained and it’s about a different thing. But my grandfather weaves in and out of the stories.

On engineering a short story collection / novel hybrid: Somehow, [stories] start fitting into place. First, there’s the engineering of the language. How do I make this sentence stronger, more solid. Does a comma help or hurt? Then there’s the engineering of the story itself, making it a sounder structure. Does this character work? It’s structural engineering.

On workshops: I’ve never workshopped. At the beginning, I found two outstanding readers, one for language, one for structure. Then that stops. You’re holding onto someone’s hand. It’s like going to the gym. You do have to develop that muscle [of critically evaluating your own work], otherwise you hold onto readers your whole life. Now, my only reader is my publisher. When I teach workshops I say this to my students: As a writer, you’ll leave here better – hopefully. But as a reader, you have to get better. Because you’ll have to read your own work.

On good writing: Something magical happens that has to be there. You can tell immediately if a writer can do that or not. And you can’t teach that. In a universe where there are no rules, how do you get from here to there?

Advice for beginners: Drink a lot of coffee. It jump starts something. My addiction is to the association that while I write, I drink coffee. Something triggers that…. What that joke underlines, though, is: Find what works for you. Whatever it is do it. Even if it seems stupid. Do it religiously.

Check out some of Halfon’s short stories online:
The Sway of the Sea
Lady in the Red Coat
Good Women and Bad Women