Michael Davidow – I’m a lawyer who writes for fun
A NH Writer’s Life
Michael Davidow’s latest book, The Hunter of Talyashevka, takes place in 1926 in the Ukraine capital of Kiev (Kyiv). The novel is described as “a thoughtful journey through the mythology and the beauty of the Jewish past and the religious themes central to its story cut to the core of our lives, even today.”
Michael and I met at his home under the watchful eye of his tiny rescue dog, Max, who quickly fell asleep as we began our chat. He is a tall thin man with his hair cut in a fade, rectangular black glasses, and casually dressed in jeans. Writing is what Michael does for fun. For work, he is a public defender. I tell him he is one of the good guys helping those who cannot afford an attorney. He agrees it is a rewarding job and adds, “Nobody pays me to write, and I still do it.”
He explains his lack of marketing for the five books he has published in this way. “They are messages in bottles, and we send them out there. We toss them into the water, and we let them float away. That sounds more poetic than it’s meant to be. You send them out there, and if people read it, that’s great. If they don’t, they don’t. It brings me pleasure. I enjoy the writing. I enjoy designing the cover and picking out the design for it. I’m happiest when I’m writing. When I’m not writing, I get dissatisfied with other things or start another project. I have no illusions about my writing career. I’m a lawyer who writes for fun.”
We explore his books by talking about the Henry Bell trilogy and the first book Gate City with Henry’s role in the presidential election.
“It’s his role in the 1960 election. That was the Kennedy-Nixon election. Talk about the history of politics in America, that was one close election. Who won it is an open question to this day. Both parties at that time did things that would not be countenanced today. They both had an old-fashioned view of how politics was supposed to be, and the question always was, did Kennedy’s men steal enough votes in Chicago to overcome the votes that Nixon stole in the south of Illinois.”
Where does the title come from?
“Gate City Nashua is involved because that’s where Kennedy began his campaign in front of Nashua City Hall. Gate City comes from one of the plot lines in the novel. In Los Angeles, in the 1960s, one of the bigger industries then and now is aerospace and a lot of defense industries. The Rand Corporation was based in the LA area. There’s a work that a Rand researcher has done on probability functions, and he calls them gates. As you reach a gate, there is a probability of it happening. You can calculate the probability of it happening, and ultimately you know the probability of different gates you can go through to get there. One of Ronald Reagan’s men decides to apply this theory to politics, and one of the themes is you can’t do that.”
You write about “chasing the delta velocity of history. And every man’s history ends with his death.”
“Delta means change. Those are the gate functions we were talking about. The Delta velocity is changing the velocity of somebody heading through time. Where is he going to end up? If you could calculate each step along the way, you can calculate where he’s going to end up. It’s all very highfalutin, and it’s meant to be. It was based on Dr. Strangelove. There are excerpts in Gate City of the mathematical treatise that everybody is reading to figure out what’s going to happen next.”
Split Thirty, the second book in the trilogy, had Henry in 1972.
“Split Thirty came from my curiosity of the world unto which I, myself, was born. It takes place in 1972 when I was still a little boy. Some of my earliest memories are watching the news with my dad and watching the Watergate scandal unfold and remembering how riveted he was by it and all the things that were happening. It was an exciting time in a lot of bad ways, reminiscent of what we just went through.”
“I was trying to do the best of both worlds to make a very intimate novel about public life, and the way I did it was with a character who is very involved in the politics of his day, very involved in life around him.”
“I knew I wanted to write about politics because that was to me the most interesting story of the 70s, and from there, you work backward to see what else was going on that was of note. The space race was of note. Madison Avenue was a huge topic of discussion that was sort of at the height of its power.”
You wrote, “god-soaked advertising men.” Is god-soaked a positive comment?
“It is a positive comment when you read the books. Henry is not trying to become wealthy. He’s not trying to be powerful. He’s trying to do something right and access his sense of the divine. He is an ad man from Ohio who is hustling for Richard Nixon, but his goal is to access his own sense of the divine. That’s what the book is about. How does that play out in his life? He is a man of great integrity, and he is a man who is challenged to put that integrity into practice. He’s not a goody-two-shoes. Occasionally, he is a violent and dangerous person.”
Is he a Nixonian in that he’s willing to be a crook?
“He’s a Rockefeller Republican. One of the joys of writing the Henry Bell story was all of the research that went into them. It ended up being a history of America starting in WWII up to the Reagan era through Henry Bell’s eyes. Nixon played a unique function in Republican politics. He was the bridge between the East and West Coasts of the Republican party. He was West Coast, but he became a New Yorker, and he found a legitimate place in the East Coast power structure. He never stopped being a Californian.”
The Rocketdyne Commission was published in 2017, ending the series. What is Rocketdyne?
“Rocketdyne is the name of a defense company Henry used to work for, and Henry was a partisan of Nelson Rockefeller. He was one of Rockefeller’s go-to guys. When Rockefeller becomes vice president, he brings Henry along as something like the head of veteran’s affairs. He has Henry on his payroll. There was a commission to look into CIA misdeeds that took place during the Ford administration. Because out of Vietnam, out of the Nixon era, there was a lot of information spilling out about what the CIA had done. The Church Commission came out with that. Henry would attend the meeting for Nelson, and he called it the Rocketdyne Commission. It’s a book about Henry being caught up with the CIA, and the CIA is not happy about being looked into. So, the word ‘commission’ ends up having several meanings in that book.”
The Book of Order publishes in 2019. Margaret Hoffman is a “seeker of wisdom.”
“Seeking of wisdom, seeking of comfort. There is a through-line from the Henry Bell books to The Book of Order, and that through-line is that god-soaked business we talked about before.”
“Margaret works at an art gallery. The Book of Order is a very quiet book. It’s not plot-driven. If there is a central mystery, it’s a bookish mystery because Margaret is in possession of a book, and she’s trying to understand what the book is, what’s missing from it and what the missing pages might mean. That’s the mystery of the book.”
It’s a tribute to the Jewish community of Boston. Do you still feel that way?
“I do. In most stories about Jews, you hear about New York Jews or sometimes about Montreal Jews or Los Angeles Jews and occasionally about the Jews in Florida. There are very few books about the Jews of Boston. It’s a smaller community. My grandparents lived in Boston, my parents grew up in Boston, and I was born there, so it’s close to my heart.”
The new book is The Hunter of Talyashevka. It takes place in 1926.
“This book is really unfinished business of The Book of Order. When you go into Jewish history, you are going into such a huge topic it’s endlessly complicated and endlessly interesting as history can be. Nobody was buying my books on politics; it was time to do something different. The Book of Order was a one-off. I had some of the same questions and concerns, but also, my old interest in history reasserted itself. I wanted to ground some of these thoughts and feelings in history. I was writing about the schism in Judaism between the Reform and the Orthodox movements and how and why that came about. I was trying to find a spot in time where I could shine some light on it. The early part of the century struck me as a good place to put it. That’s also the limit of my own personal imagination. I knew my grandparents. They’re all from Russia. From knowing them, I had some small sense like shadows being cast against the walls and what their lives were like. Putting my characters in 1920s Russia is really the best that I could do to bring some personal knowledge to what I was writing about.”
You write about a pure black square, the symbol of modernity.
“If you go back to the 1920s, there was a guy named Malevich who was a famous Russian modernist who painted black squares. People were screaming, you can’t do this. This isn’t art. You could argue it wasn’t the symbol of modernity, but for Malevich and the others, it was. His most famous painting is white on white. This is more of an adventure story. When you put something in Russia in the 1920s, what’s going on? Art is going on. Do the research and what the Soviets were trying to do was to build a new society. And one of the things to build that society was art. You needed art. Lenin was the leader. He was allowing art. He understands art is important. The Soviet State is beginning to coalesce. It’s still in flux and changing rapidly but beginning to become what it became. People are still enjoying the freedom of not having a czar on top of them. You have this confluence of art, religion, politics, all coming together, and that’s what it’s about. I will tell you one of the things about Talyashevka is you know what happens to all the characters after the book ends. These are Ukrainian Jews, and WWII is coming up.”
Radio Free New Hampshire is Michael Davidow’s way of giving us his point of view of “uncensored news and information” in a manner as Radio Free Europe gave during the Cold War. His column is funny, thoughtful, challenging, and smartly written. While you are on www.InDepthNH.org, search for Radio Free New Hampshire and catch up on all his columns. Enjoy the romp as Michael talks about the duck-billed platypus and Susan Collins, the three words that define Hillary Clinton, the beauty of Glen Campbell songs, Chanukah, Spring, and the New York Times. You won’t want to miss a word he’s written.
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