As I started to write this review, I learned that Philip Roth had died. I remembered reading Portnoy’s Complaint and Goodbye, Columbus years ago, though I haven’t revisited them in a number of years. And it struck me certain parallels existed between Roth and Daniel M. Jaffe. I wouldn’t go as far as to call Jaffe the gay Philip Roth because that’s an awful burden to place on any author’s shoulders, and it’s not exactly correct. However, some of the same themes exist in their work, especially the exploration of the “promiscuous instincts” Roth has written about in numerous essays. Those instincts are on full display in Jaffe’s latest work, Yeled Tov.
More than anything, Jake Stein wants to be a “good boy” (yeled tov), but he has much to contend with. He lusts after men at shul. He lusts after the guy who plays Peter Van Daan in his high school’s production of The Diary of Anne Frank. He lusts after his childhood friend, Dave. He lusts after his college roommate, Ted. He’s a bundle of lust, which is what he tries to explain to God when he talks to him. But God isn’t exactly sympathetic, and dates with nice Jewish girls don’t help much. All this tsuris and mishegas has to have some long-term consequences, leading Jake to a very bad decision. Suicide.
Okay, that’s not as much a spoiler as you might think. Jaffe doesn’t leave Jake with many other options, and though it wasn’t telegraphed, it was certainly the end of a logical progression. But the real import of this novel is in Jake’s journey and how he gets to that end. The examination of his “promiscuous instincts” aren’t uniquely Jewish or uniquely gay, but those two spins on the concept give the events here a universality I really enjoyed. Gay men and women aren’t as free to act on those instincts as their straight counterparts, and the additional barrier of trying to adhere to the teachings of the Torah only complicates the matter.
And Jake is a yeled tov. Sure, he lusts and gives in to that lust but he pays for it in guilt, and he never puts the moves on any object of his lust. He not only doesn’t want to be found out, but he doesn’t want to add to their burdens by making them reject him. Early on, his father gives him a sage piece of advice, albeit about women: “Whatever you do, never hurt the girl.” Jake has internalized this message, ensuring that he will be a yeled tov no matter who or how he loves. He just hasn’t realized it.
Jaffe takes on Jake’s story with a keen eye for detail and a good ear for dialogue. Jake’s discussions with God are very well done, and the one near the end of the book will bring a tear to your eye as both he and God come to peace with each other. It did mine, anyway. And I’m an atheist.
© 2018 Jerry L. Wheeler