A father's life - and death - haunt his son in this beautiful and strange novel.
Peter Stephan Jungk's beautiful, surpassingly strange novel deals with emotions and faith, but it opens with a mundane, concrete setting: a traffic jam. Gustav, a middle-aged fur trader living in Vienna, is in New York to visit his wife and children. He's accompanied during the drive by his elderly mother, a harridan who criticizes his every decision, especially his conversion to Orthodox Judaism. The Sabbath is approaching, so he needs to get to the lake house by sunset, but a chemical spill on the Tappan Zee Bridge has halted traffic. To get some breathing room and escape Mom's critiques, he walks to the edge of the bridge, looks down and sees his late father's naked body, enormous, stretched between the riverbanks.
Gustav could be seeing things: His flight had a lengthy delay, and it's not clear that anybody else can see what he and his mother see. But the vagueness only bolsters the uncanny feel of "Crossing the Hudson," as Gustav studies his father's body, "lying there like Gulliver stranded in Lilliput." The story turns on Gustav's memories of his father, Ludwig, a famed physicist, with stories roughly parallel to body parts: his legs spark stories of hiking trips, his genitals relate to memories of his many infidelities, his head spawns Gustav's thoughts of the scholarly world he grew up in.
An eighth-grader can tease out the symbolism here: Ludwig was a larger-than-life figure who intimidates Gustav even in death, and the book will describe how he will literally bridge the gap. "The more enterprising the father, the quieter and more worn out the son," Jungk writes.
Yet the metaphor has great force behind it, allowing for a treatment of father-son relationships that's both deeply intimate and deeply intellectual. As if to match the literal exposure of the "fatherbody" in the river, Jungk's narrative is thick with confessions of abuse, sex, fear of failure and history -- memories of the Holocaust also thrum softly through the story. The novel's tone is a kind of tender rage, and Gustav's inner conflict is clear when he thinks of his father as "monster, fallen angel, handsome man, the living dead, deceased father of life."
Jungk's treatment is imperfect: Gustav's mother is something of a caricature, an unstoppable lecture machine, and attempts to bring some action to the gridlock sometimes seem forced and unrealistic. (Nobody's going to host an ad hoc history lecture during a traffic jam, even a long one.) But those flaws don't intrude on the central story of Ludwig and Gustav, especially in the closing pages that bring their lives uncannily together. Ludwig's magnum opus, we learn, was titled "Fusion" -- an apt term for the connection his son is seeking and which Jungk surprisingly, elegantly describes.
Mark Athitakis is a writer in Washington, D.C. He blogs at americanfiction.wordpress.com.