Haunch Paunch and Jowl (1923, Samuel Ornitz)

This is a rather obscure book by a rather obscure author. The few people to whom the name Samuel Ornitz might mean anything are more likely to recognize him as a screenwriter than as a novelist, and his film career was not particularly illustrious (he’s best known for being one of the Hollywood Ten). A few scholars of Jewish-American fiction might have heard of him―perhaps even have read him―but despite being reprinted in the 80s, the book under review here (his debut) can hardly be said to have secured its author’s lasting fame. Yet Haunch Paunch and Jowl* was a big commercial success in its day. Its mention in the Wikipedia entry on Ornitz caught my attention (‘[it] contains an early use of stream-of-consciousness writing in American fiction’); when I saw, at the bottom of the page, that the whole text was available to read online for free, I decided that it was worth at least a brief investigation, and that brief investigation of the first page nudged me into reading the whole thing properly.

The narrator is Meyer Hirsch, a successful New York judge, who looks back at his rise from childhood poverty to wealth and status. It soon becomes clear that the behavior he displays as a boy (devious, selfish, motivated by ruthless ambition) sets the pattern for his adult career, and that the success enjoyed by the middle-aged Meyer has been achieved through dubious means. Apart from a few instances of flash-forwards, the narrative is mostly linear, though episodic and jumpy, with a very vague timeline; no dates are given, though one would suppose that the story opens in the late 19th century. At the start, Meyer is a young boy living in a tiny apartment with his mother, father and uncle. The men spend most of their day slaving at their meagrely-paid jobs, while the mother is scarcely less harried by the demands of simply sustaining an existence. The three Yiddish-speaking adults are émigrés from Russia, driven from their homeland by pogroms; the rich German Jews who are their new employers and exploiters look down on families such as the Hirsches as belonging to an uncivilized peasant culture. He is given the nickname of ziegelle, or little goat, which was bestowed upon him affectionately by his mother, but is resented by Meyer due to the teasing to which he is subjected by his peers. It turns out that the term of endearment was not an arbitrary choice, for Meyer learns to his dismay that when he was born during the family’s passage to America, he was indeed suckled by a goat while his mother lay sick. The young Meyer is taunted by shadows on the wall of his apartment, imagining that they are cavorting goats come to mock him; even the shadows of his mother’s beckoning arms take on this aspect. Meyer complains about his nickname to Berel the harness-maker:

“Then tell me, Berel, be so good, what’s the matter nobody likes a goat and everybody makes fun of them.”
  “First place, nothing bothers a goat and that makes people angry. A goat manages to get along where any other creature would perish. Stubble, twigs, anything is food and nourishment for him. He is a sidestepper, can walk a narrow ledge or fence, if need be. He is for himself; unfeeling, and befriends no one. An unlikable, ugly thing with a most unreasonable smell. And I have noticed that a goat is the only thing ridicule can’t kill.”

Of course, this describes the goatish disposition Meyer will display through the years, though I feel Ornitz could have done more to sustain the goat imagery in the latter parts of the book (indeed, there’s a lot of animal imagery in the early chapters, and it’s a shame that it peters out). Here, goats are contrasted with lambs―specifically with Berel’s peaceable employee Lutz, who lies severely injured after being assaulted by policemen. It is the goats who prosper, while the lambs are trodden underfoot. This, it would appear from Ornitz’s book, is the ordinary state of affairs in a capitalist society, in which success always comes at the expense of others. The young Meyer gets an early taste of the pitiless power-play success requires in his involvement with the local gang, working his way up from the very bottom:

I am in a hurry to join the Ludlow Street Gang. Just yesterday I was admitted to its glorious ranks as the fourteenth leader. I was not Leader the Fourteenth, but of the whole gang fourteenth in prowess and importance. However, I had only thirteen superiors. Being the lowest step in the ladder, I was most frequently trod upon; but it was sweet suffering, the travail of a hero. . . . **

He does not remain long in this position, his first advance coming as a result of a fight over a seating place by an outdoor fire. He makes himself useful with his ingenuity, careful never to expose himself to significant physical danger, but becoming a trusted adviser to the gang’s leader, Boolkie. The young Ludlow Streeters amuse themselves with petty crimes and brawling rivalries, many of them relishing the freedom to make mischief because it is in such exhilarating contrast to the harsh, gloomy routines of the cheder, or religious school, they are forced to attend. As Meyer states, the ‘gang was romance, adventure, had the zest of banditry, the thrill of camp life, and the lure of hero-worship’. There’s a brilliantly entertaining passage in which the boys, released from the cheder for the day, engage in a large street fight with another gang (described in comically militaristic terms: ‘a battalion of boys’, ‘a fusillade of brickbats’, ‘an unopposed charge upon the Guerrillas’ rear’, etc. ), the fight morphing into a more general riot until Meyer starts orchestrating it for his own advantage. Here darker undertones intrude, as property is destroyed (perhaps reminding the shopkeepers of the pogroms they’d fled) and protection money demanded, the young hooligans acting just as a bona fide criminal gang would (naturally, several of the young hooligans indeed go on to become bona fide criminal gangsters). Respectable pillars of the community tut-tut at all this, but when the two Jewish gangs join forces to fight Irish youths, the same pillars of the community urge them on. The same pillars of the community are also sweatshop operators and brothel owners, their conduct, beneath the veneer of respectability, being no less corrupt and inhumane than that of the gangsters. As Meyer’s legal career takes off, he contrives to keep a foot in both camps, maintaining the front of a worthy, pious Jew who regularly attends synagogue (inwardly, he despises religion) while finding that his boyhood criminal connections are of great use to him professionally. He also becomes part of the notorious Tammany Hall system that dominated Democratic politics in New York for years, posing as a champion of the working man while seeking only to benefit himself. His uncle Philip, meanwhile, becomes a convinced capitalist (“It’s a good thing,” he says, “this is a free country and I can exploit whom I like.”), rises from lowly factory worker to wealthy mogul, all the while treating his employees like dirt and manipulating union leaders for his own ends. The satirical mode is an invigorating blend of disgusted Swiftian indignation and exuberant Jonsonian revelry in chicanery and cunning. The condemnation of capitalism is total and unremitting, and yet Ornitz cannot resist having a ball with Meyer’s schemes (and those of his uncle), making them seem almost fun even if the schemer himself is far from a fun character. Ornitz depicts through his narrator’s recollections a society made sick and venal at all levels by capitalism. Business, the law, politics, gangs and religion: all operate according to the same principles, or lack of them. Appearance counts for more than reality in such a society; you may be a total fraud, crook, incompetent and hypocrite, but if you put on a good front, people will take ‘you to be the man you say you are’. A foray into the world of musical theatre is the occasion for some great comedy, but we also see the phoniness of commercial entertainment, the narrowness of its relentless pursuit of profit, the crassness of its racial stereotyping, its association with prostitution and organized crime. It is via Meyer’s activities as performer that Ornitz provides his bleakest picture of the human cost of capitalism:

Later, when tips were running high, Sam introduced us to the fifty-cent houses on Mott and Elizabeth Streets, where was beginning to develop a large Italian colony. Pimps on the street pulled at us, dragged us into doorways and cried their drawing card―“imported girlies, young―very young”; that was the attraction. And we found nothing misleading in their advertisement. The girls were young, very young, ten to fourteen years old, and imported, imported by Italian padrones, importers of livestock only: pleasure girls, boy and girl street musicians, children acrobats, crippled and deformed children for begging; and when such importations were stopped only by the horrors exposed by their own excesses, they became respectable importers of mine and railway peons. The Elizabeth Street joints were crude and dirty places, and Hymie Rubin, rather sensitive and soft-hearted, turned from them in disgust, saying he minded most the little girls’ white, bewildered faces. […] Hymie preferred the Five Points scrubs because they were cheap and did not seem to be human beings.

In contrast to Meyer’s cynicism and single-minded devotion to his own interests, Ornitz also presents a series of ‘good’ characters, who are variously compassionate, idealistic, principled, naïve. Such qualities Meyer regards with scorn, but even among the ‘dream-stupefied’ (a frequently employed term of abuse), there are some for whom he has a certain amount of respect and admiration, even he cannot understand their approaches to life. Most important is his complicated relationship with Esther, a beautiful local girl who becomes a committed socialist. Ornitz has a real gift for characterization, superbly realizing monsters like Meyer and Philip, more sympathetic figures such as his boyhood friends Avrum and Davey (who in adulthood turn, respectively, to political activism and poetry), and little cameos such as the elderly rabbi who rails against prostitution and curses much of his congregation, the brash theatrical agent with idiosyncratic pronunciation (e.g. ‘I takes pleasure in arnouncing the East Side Four, kwartet, buck an’ wing and comedy artists, introducing numberous nowelties, all bein’ under the pursonel direckshun of A. Wolff, Esquire’), and, best of all, a boozy old pianist:

Piano O’Brien’s deft signals holds [sic] us in key, time and place. He is more than an accompanist. He is our guiding genius, attending our every move with telepathic accord. And so he sits the whole night, slightly stooped, at the piano, accompanying the singers, playing a vagrant, restful interlude or joining the fiddler, cornetist and drummer in banging out the dance music of the day. And his eyes seem drowned in the eternal well of whiskey on the music rest. He appears as tireless and detached as an automaton. He is a pale-faced drunkard, as though the very blood in him has turned into high-proof spirits. . . . Drunk unceasingly for many years, yet he is never the drunken man. His repose is deathlike, but gruesome in the midst of life. His eyes are like small clams congealed in alcohol. He has thin lips that compress into a purple straight line. His skin, drawn taut over forehead, cheek bones and jaw bones, seems petrified. His hands, only, seem limber and living, but the hands become as part of the piano. To the world he has no personality or being or self except as the thing of the piano. So he is known as Piano O’Brien.

Some of the characters may seem like familiar types later to be often seen in Hollywood movies (although Hollywood seldom placed them in an explicitly Jewish milieu), but here they seem fresh. It is also true that, on the whole, the men are more vivid than the women, but perhaps this a result of our seeing them through the eyes of a narrator who has little time for women except as sex objects.

As I hope the passages quoted above suggest, Haunch Paunch and Jowl contains some very impressive writing, revelling in the display of its author’s keen powers of description (‘His eyes are like small clams congealed in alcohol’―just wonderful). Ornitz’s portrayal of life in New York’s Jewish immigrant community is marvellously fresh and detailed: the rollicking prose is peppered with tasty bits of dated slang (bushwah, spiffy, yegg, lobbygow, spieler and so on), and there’s also quite a bit of Yiddish, italicized and with translations provided in brackets. One of the book’s strengths is Meyer’s narratorial voice: shrewd, caustic, loquacious, amoral, without shame. Occasionally the expressions of a self-interested, cynical philosophy are a little too on the nose, but they are in keeping with Meyer’s blunt and unnuanced mind. A bigger criticism is that Ornitz is not consistent, for there are some passages that don’t seem as if Meyer could have been written them. For instance, a brief account of the spread of ragtime displays a deeper interest in popular art and a greater resentment towards conservative taste-makers than is characteristic of the narrator. A rhapsody on the theme of the city’s red-light districts seems more moralistic, more concerned with sin and vice than one would expect of Meyer. Ornitz’s use of stream-of-consciousness (which is what attracted me to the book) is interesting and often effective, but it is also sometimes a bit rough-and-ready. See how much work the ellipses are doing in the following passage, for example:

These are the thoughts filtering into my mind like hot ashes. . . . I am getting ready for bed. . . . It is the beginning of another summer. . . . I stand by the window . . . a young moon rides the heavens, trailing the gauziest of nebulae . . . like a bridal veil . . . a bridal veil. . . . Gretel calls me . . . is she apprehensive . . . does she sense that I am seeing a heavenly virgin bedecked in nuptial lace? . . .

The problem is that the succession of thoughts (which are, in themselves, well-written) is too neat and orderly; Meyer may mention ‘the trick of rapid incoherent thoughts flipping through [his] mind,’ but in truth a little more rapidity and incoherence would not have gone amiss at times. Elsewhere, Ornitz achieves this brilliantly:

The wind screeched in my ears . . . you thought you would forget . . . but you will never forget Esther . . . her eyes . . . her hands . . . her quick smile . . . and her voice . . . you will never forget. . . . Everything is rushing on, swiftly. The wind is sweeping the world away from me. . . . I am left alone clinging to the granite block . . . the trees rush past, the houses swoop away, the river rages on its flight from me; below me I feel a rumble; now comes a gaseous snort . . . a freight-train flees after the wind-borne trees, houses, river, and swirling roads. . . . The wine of her lips―one kiss . . . limbs quivering beneath silk . . . a whisper . . . dust off the electric chair . . . charred potatoes but sweet . . . a whisper . . . hands tingling under my hot lips. . . .

It’s strange to think that a book containing passages such as this could have been a bestseller back in 1923, and stranger still that it could have fallen into oblivion. One possible reason for its current neglect could be that there’s something a little odd and tangled about its attitude to immigration, assimilation and the place of Jews in America Jewish. Ornitz is hard on Meyer, who wears a Good Jew mask for his own self-serving ends, but he is scarcely sympathetic to the old traditions Meyer pretends to honor. On the one hand we have a character such as Dr. Lionel Crane (Lazarus Cohen), who pontificates on ‘The Jewish Question’, espouses assimilationist views, downplays anti-Semitism, and is clearly something a quack. On the other hand, when leftist union man Avrum suggests that the pogroms in Russia are to be blamed in part on the behavior of Jewish traders and money-lenders, he is vilified, and Ornitz clearly has some sympathy with his sense of being misunderstood and unfairly attacked, even if it’s not clear that Ornitz endorses Avrum’s views. Berel Lotvin the harness-maker is revealed towards the end to have attained a successful and contented existence as a tire-dealer under the name of Bernard Lowe, having turned from Judaism to Christian Science; he is apparently rewarded for renouncing his Old World Jewish name, religion and profession in favor of modern American ones. He claims that even his diabetes―thought of as a typically Jewish complaint―has been cured following his conversion. His sons, however, have started to attend synagogue, though it may be simply in order to woo two young women in the congregation. So Ornitz’s viewpoint is hard to determine. It is striking how little anti-Semitism features in the novel, the only clear example being the conflict between the Irish and Jewish youth gangs. What we don’t see is anti-Semitism being an obstacle or source of oppression; there is plenty of bigotry between Jews (mainly in the form of German Jews looking down on Russian Jews), but little bigotry towards Jews on the part of white Anglo-Saxon Protestant society. This omission renders Ornitz’s panorama incomplete, racial prejudice being a key component of the dehumanizing capitalist system he excoriates. Despite this flaw, the book is certainly strong enough to warrant a further reprint, and it is to be hoped that a publisher such as the New York Review of Books or The Dalkey Archive seeks to return it to the limelight.

* The odd title refers to a nickname the protagonist endures as his girth expands in step with his rising public profile.
** You can see here how Ornitz destabilizes the temporal viewpoint of his narrator. The first sentence is in the simple present (the tense most frequently employed in the novel’s early parts); the next marks a shift to the simple past (which, later on in the book, comes more the fore). Except that ‘I am in a hurry’ and ‘Just yesterday’ belong to the same moment: Meyer running to meet his fellow gang members having been admitted by them the day before. It is a moment in Meyer’s past, but he narrates it as if it were happening right now. When he talks of being ‘frequently trod upon’, there is another shift in temporal viewpoint, because this can only refer to a series of occurrences happening over period of time after the second day of his gang membership, and so, from the perspective of the ‘present’ of Meyer hurrying to join his confrères, refers to Meyer’s future, even as he really looking back on the past.

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