Monthly Archives: July 2022

Before All the World – Moriel Rothman-Zecher (FSG)

Preorder From:


Two survivors of a Red Army pogrom search for purpose and connection in Rothman-Zecher’s latest novel. It’s a story that brings readers face-to-face with unfathomable childhood trauma while pondering complex themes of racial and religious persecution, intersecting subordinate identities, and the socialist movement in pre-World War II America.

Strong, appealing characters carry Rothman-Zecher’s necessarily heavy and emotionally-painful story. Leyb, now nineteen years old, was a small child when all of his family and neighbors were taken to the forest by soldiers to be massacred in a village in Eastern Europe. Through a network of extended relatives, he was brought to faraway Philadelphia and raised and educated in the city’s Jewish-Orthodox community. Living among hard-working, religious families, Leyb develops an appreciation for worldly learning, though he remains an outsider, drifting through an urban environment (“amerike”) he longs to but struggles to understand. While he’s given the nickname Lion, Leyb is much more of a lamb– gentle, trusting, and ill-prepared to protect himself from the harshness of the world. He also has the task of figuring out how to live as a gay man in a community and a broader world that considers his nature shameful and deviant.

Gittl was just a few years older than Leyb when their village was massacred, and their lives diverge and then intertwine miraculously. In contrast to shy, vulnerable Leyb, Gittl is a hardened fighter who made her way across Europe cleaning houses and eventually working as a translator for a Marxist newspaper. Though equipped with greater agency than Leyb, due, in part to the demands placed on Jewish peasant girls to take care of home and family, the violence from her childhood has made her a loner in a tough, emotionally-detached way. Whereas Leyb seeks love and connection, Gittl looks to survive through human transactions that can easily be left behind. Her deeper connections are from the past via the spirits of her siblings who are always with her, giving her strength to persevere. A mantra echoes in her head: “Gittl, never alone.”

Both Leyb and Gittl’s lives are transformed when they meet Charles, a writer who travels in Philadelphia’s socialist circles. Charles is also a black man who knows quite well the tenuous position of minorities in society. Leyb meets Charles at an underground gay bar called Crickets, and they enter an affair. When Leyb is cast out by his community, Charles provides him refuge. Later, Gittl finds herself in Philadelphia and joins their household.

The author commits to an authentic voice for his characters, which is challenging at times, with dialogue and internal monologue in Yiddish and regional colloquialisms that require reading extensive footnotes to follow. Yet this is a story that provokes the mind and heart on many levels. In poetic passages, one feels the shock and dissonance of Leyb and Gittl’s trauma, and their fractured, sometimes dizzying narratives convey the lasting disorientation from childhood loss and displacement.

To equal effect, Rothman-Zecher’s novel raises profound questions about the nature of human oppression and the attempts of social movements to address its complexities. Charles, for example, finds a place to put his literary skill to use within a radical labor rights organization that is ambivalent about acknowledging the impact of slavery in America. Leyb is shunned by fellow Jews whose oppressors would hardly spare them from annihilation because they agree with their disgust for gay men and lesbians. Gittl is welcomed to Philadelphia by middle-class Jews who proclaim socialism as salvation while her family and neighbors were butchered against the backdrop of communist revolution. “What will you do before all the world?” the author asks his characters, and of course the reader. One cannot give too much away in a review, but ultimately, the author offers a hopeful message about the courage of the human spirit.

A fascinating and moving work of literary fiction, which I would say is important reading for readers of all categories.

Reviewed by Andrew J. Peters

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Sleeping As Others – Estlin Adams (Queer Space/Rebel Satori)

Buy from:

Rebel Satori Press

Maybe it’s all the William Burroughs I’ve been reading and thinking about lately (due to my essay in Brian Alessandro & Tom Cardamone’s Fever Spores: The Queer Reclamation of William S. Burroughs), but Estlin Adams’s Sleeping As Others is very Burroughsian in nature. Although the mode of expression is different, the alienation and connection of disconnections that runs through Burroughs’s work is on fine display in this simply rendered yet complex examination of roles and rituals on many sides of the sexual spectrum.

The plot is deceptively simple. A man suddenly finds himself inhabiting the bodies of the men with whom he has sex. That is, John sleeps with someone and the next morning finds himself in the body of his paramour. He still thinks as John but looks like someone else. Like anyone caught in this situation, he has questions: where did this ability come from? How does he get rid of it? What happens to the other guys while he’s in their bodies? Do they come back when he’s gone on to someone else? As he searches for answers and finds truths, he confronts multiple parts of his personality and explores the nature of role-playing with leather fantasists, tricks with daddy issues, and even John’s straight boss, Luke. What does he find out? Uh-uh. You’ll have to read the book.

I enjoyed the density of the book. That’s not to say the prose is dense, because it’s quite readable despite the complexity of the concepts it presents. Rather, I enjoyed the intellectual weight of it. The idea of such a transition between bodies is rife with opportunities, and Adams takes advantage of as many as possible, observing his characters intimately and obsessively as he tracks John’s permutations and studies his strategies for John’s return to “normal.”

Both the premise and the follow-through of Sleeping As Others reminds me of not only Burroughs, but another of Rebel Satori’s stable of queer theorists with a tendency toward the surreal, Peter Dubé (Conjure, The Headless Man). I also kept thinking of David Cronenberg’s film version of Burroughs’s Naked Lunch. Granted, this has fewer typing cockroaches, but Adams captures the squalid, steampunk feel of the movie with seeming ease.

Sleeping As Others, then, is a fascinating look into a head that can’t stop hopping. Is it advocating or decrying promiscuity? Maybe on some levels, it’s doing both. Either way, you’ll find plenty to think about once you’ve finished.


© 2022 Jerry L. Wheeler

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized