Hunger Artist: A Suburban Childhood

By Joanne Jacobson

Bottom Dog Press, 2007, $16



The opening sentence of Saul Bellow’s 1953 novel, The Adventures of Augie March, which begins, “I am an American, Chicago born – Chicago, that somber city – and go at things as I have taught myself, free-style,” arguably did as much as any novel to put Chicago on this century’s literary map. In creating the character March, a poor Chicago Jew living during the Depression, Bellow, himself a Chicago Jew, also revolutionized Jewish literature.

Now, Joanne Jacobson’s memoir Hunger Artist: A Suburban Childhood brings a Jewish voice to suburban Chicago. And though Jacobson’s book is surely very different from Bellow’s, both her character and March navigate experiences that recognize the city as an important character.


Proverbs aside, Jacobson’s memoir can be partially judged by its cover. I was recently reading Hunger Artist while waiting for a very late train at a large terminal when a bystander, who had been looking at me for some time, asked what I was reading. I showed him the book, and he began questioning me about it. He later explained his reason for asking: the “very gripping photo on the cover,” which depicts Jacobson, her baby sister Anita, and her parents in front of a white picket fence, and a row of houses. The picture is black and white, but the sky is a promising light blue.


Jacobson, professor of English and associate dean for academic affairs at Yeshiva University, weaves her tale around photographs of her family: from her posing with a menorah on her first Chanukah to her father’s high school graduation photo to a back porch shot of her and her cousins with popsicles. Though the images are perhaps more appropriate for the family album than a gallery or museum, they foreshadow and support the text of the memoir by embedding the streets and houses of Evanston, Illinois − particularly 711 Michigan Avenue − as characters within the family portraits.


Early on, it becomes clear that Jacobson’s book is an optimistic one, even as she relates some troubling experiences from car crashes to an attempted rape. To Jacobson, Chicago, and indeed the “entire world seemed to lie molten around us, amenable to our presence, inviting us to leave our mark, set in dream time.” Jacobson’s aspiration is literally to the heaves, where astronauts, who are “hungry for more of heaven,” fly weightless and leave footprints on the moon.


Yet however free Jacobson felt, photographs of her grandparents betray their shtetl mentality. In the images, her mother’s mother and father seem “suspended in a force field close to their Chicago house − their motion checked, as though otherwise they were liable to slip beyond the concrete arc of their front stoop and come unanchored.” When spring rolled around, Jacobson’s grandmother quickly reminded her, “Every Easter the nuns would come to spit on us.”


Jacobson would herself experience anti-Semitism − from Mr. Pope, a “deliberately cruel” grade school teacher who operated a German U-Boat during the War, to a dance at the Women’s Club that barred Jews − and as a child she feared savage birds of prey and Nazis lurking in the shadows. Perhaps evoking Sylvia Plath’s 1965 poem “Daddy,” and its claim, “Every woman adores a Fascist,” Jacobson did not report Pope to her parents, since she was “too grateful for the fragile order that Mr. Pope brought to the day, and too captivated by the imagination with which he made our weaknesses interesting, to break the code of silence that each of us observed.”


Hunger Artist refers several times to the ultimate story of the triumph of order over human weakness: the Biblical tale of the binding of Isaac. In an interview, Jacobson said the book originated with the Akeidah and its parallels with her father’s “great hopes for his family’s suburban future” and her own “sense of the ways in which a man’s own dreamed life can take precedence over everything else and make the emotional realities of his relationship to his children recede.”



Joanne Jacobson posing with the menorah on her first Chanukah



Improvising on the Biblical tale, Jacobson compares Abraham the sacrificer with her father’s grandfather, the ritual slaughterer, who “kept his knife sharp as a razor, as smooth as silk, as unblemished as a stone worked for centuries by water,” and explores Isaac’s frustration and sense of abandonment after Abraham’s would-be sacrifice. “Here I am? You knew where we were going, what you were going to do, were prepared to do, would not give up doing – for me or for my mother waiting in your tent, knowing no more than I did,” Jacobson’s Isaac accuses.


Jacobson’s memoir describes an incident when as an 11-year-old she ignored her parents’ orders and left the bus at the wrong stop hoping to use a shortcut. She was attacked and almost raped before a pedestrian scared her assailant away. When she returns home and tells her parents what happened, Jacobson is surprised to see her father distraught, scared, and “vexed as a stranger himself, alone in a strange place.” Try as he might to protect her and his suburban dream, even teaching his daughter about the security potential of rubber tires in a lightning storm, Jacobson’s father was as helpless as Abraham when the divine order told him to sacrifice his only son whom he loved.


The culprit that tempted Jacobson off the bus, the specter that lurks throughout the book, is hunger. Despite clear instructions from her parents to wait for the correct stop, Jacobson “could feel [her] rising hunger and the temptation to get off and take a shortcut home.” Like Adam and Eve, Jacobson chooses hunger over security, and the result is a loss of innocence.


Indeed, some of the most vivid prose of the book are descriptions of food, which often assume the form of lists (not unlike Don DeLillo’s in “Underworld”). Of popsicles, Jacobson recalls “clear, icy cherry or grape or banana or blue raspberry – or a creamy Fudgsicle; or an orange Dreamsicle, crystal sherbet whirled into soft ice cream.” At the drugstore, Jacobson enjoys (and shoplifts) “darkly wrapped M&M’s and Hershey Bars and the peppermint patties sealed in silver foil” and “a mosaic of gum packets – Juicy Fruit, Chiclets, Dentyne; Bazooka Joe bubble gum … In warm weather I could see the Turtles, sweating clumps of chocolate and nuts and raisins sealed under plastic wrap.” Another drugstore contains “trays of freshly roasted cashews dipping flushed and fragrant over the long soda counter and slowly righting themselves like carnival Ferris wheels.”


Satisfying her hunger leads Jacobson to plus size shopping and embarrassing gym classes. Her family fights over it when dessert time comes around; it upsets her mother when she secretly consumes the menu for dinner parties, and it becomes an area where her aunt and uncle spoil her. But as the astronauts hunger for more heaven, Jacobson’s hunger becomes a hunger for literature and for storytelling.


This hunger yields Jacobson’s study of post-War American suburbia − and indeed Jewish identity in post-War suburbia. But as Hunger Artist tracks the shift from her immigrant grandparents to her American parents, the book inevitably looks forward, anticipating future stories and books. Where Jacobson remembers where she was when she heard of John F. Kennedy’s assassination, will this generation’s writers wonder where they were when they learned of Britney Spears’ second incarceration or 15th trip to the hospital?


In Jacobson’s memoir, the global, the national, and the sociological pass through the personal, and where Augie March becomes an everyman of sorts, Jacobson’s experiences become both hers and part of a larger picture. How Jewish identity and suburbia will continue to evolve is anyone’s guess, but memoirs like Jacobson’s are great tools for examining those evolutions with both a literary and a sociological eye.


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