Well before Ariel Sharon undertook with brutal literal-mindedness to erect a wall separating Israel from the territories it occupies, David Grossman was building an extraordinary literary opus devoted in large part to the problem of walls. Grossman’s concern has been not just actual walls of plaster, brick or chain-link, though sometimes those as well, but the full range of metaphoric barriers—suits of armor, sarcophagi and second skins—we construct to protect the heart and tender inner organs from all the cruelty, humiliation, and indifference we would rather keep outside. He posed the problem explicitly in 1988’s The Yellow Wind, a journalistic account of the many costs of the occupation that is, depressingly, as fresh and relevant now as it was 16 years ago: “Is it possible to say that twenty years of heart-hardening have had no side effects? . . . We set up a sort of ‘block’ in our souls. A closed-off area, fencing in all the problems we do not wish to touch. Little by little we learn to make detours, to distance ourselves from that same closed area. . . . Without our noticing, it ceases to be ours. Something is lost and taken away from us, maybe forever.”
It’s that “maybe forever” that has obsessed Grossman, and that haunts his novels. Through love or through art (which are decidedly of a piece for him), his characters try desperately to free themselves from the fortresses they’ve built, and more often than not destroy themselves in the attempt. No such tragic sensibility hangs over Someone to Run With, Grossman’s latest novel, a strange combination of Nancy Drew, the Brothers Grimm, S.E. Hinton, and Bruno Schulz, all mashed up and moistened with an uncharacteristically liberal dose of schmaltz.
Written for that brief and liminal demographic, the Young Adult, though with far more sophistication, structural and otherwise, than that audience is usually permitted, Someone follows two intersecting narrative trajectories. Assaf, a sweet, awkward 16-year-old, runs all around Jerusalem at the other end of a leash from Dinka, a stray wonder dog whose owner he has been charged with finding. Grossman leaps between Assaf’s adventures (a nun in a tower, a vicious cop, teen addicts crashed out in the ruins of an Arab village) and those of Tamar, Dinka’s tough, sensitive, beautiful owner, on a mission of her own to rescue her junkie brother from the Fagin-like Pesach, a giant in a black net tank top who runs a ring of semi-enslaved homeless teen street performers. Dinka’s nose knows no lies, and it’s clear early on that Tamar and Assaf are destined to meet and fall in love, and that life lessons will abound en route.
If the pedagogic tendencies are unusual for Grossman, the nun in the tower, named Theodora (“gift of God,” no less), is an almost iconic Grossmanian figure. She hasn’t gone outdoors for 50 years, in absurdist fealty to a vow she made as a child to the residents of a faraway island, all long since dead. Tamar, locked in a tower of self-sacrifice of her own devising, longs to ask her, “If a person—any person—decided to enclose himself in armor, seal up and protect his soul, for a certain amount of time, in order to be able to execute a difficult mission—whatever it might be—after the mission has ended, will he be able to be himself, to go back to exactly the same person he was beforehand?”
If here, for the first time in his oeuvre, Grossman answers optimistically, it’s hard to fully rejoice. Someone is dedicated to Grossman’s children, and has the feel of a story spun by a devoted father over a month of bedtimes, heavy with sweet reassurances and an overabundant presumption of innocence. You know it’s somehow less than honest, but also that the lies it tells, it tells out of love.