Book Review: Fathers and sons

By: Rabbi Rachel Esserman

There are novels that I refer to as reader-friendly. While these works may look at difficult topics – for example, suicide or autism – they usually offer pleasant, simple solutions to complex issues. This leaves readers feeling good about the novels and themselves because they aren’t forced to consider that many problems don’t have happy, easy answers. An antidote to these works can be found in two recent works: “Millard Salter’s Last Day” by Jacob M. Appel (Gallery Books),which focuses on suicide, and Jem Lester’s “Shtum” (The Overlook Press), which offers a portrait of a family dealing with an autistic son. Underlying the subject matter of both works are the problematic relationships between several sets of fathers and sons that may never be satisfactorily resolved. 
In Appel’s novel, Millard Salter considers his 75th birthday the perfect time to end his life. Although he’s not ill and still works as the head of a psychiatric department in a hospital, Millard dreads the slow decline of old age. He spends the day looking back at his life – thinking about his family, his first and second marriages, and his four children. Although Millard’s first wife is still alive, his second wife died after a difficult illness. The majority of his children seem settled – that is, except for Lysander, his youngest son from his first marriage, who wanders aimlessly through life. Millard hopes that he can set his son on a better path during one last lunch, although he doesn’t want to reveal that this will be the last meal they share.
In fact, Millard plans to make his last day just like any other day – that is, except for helping a woman he’s fallen in love with also commit suicide. There is one great difference: Delilah suffers from a terminal disease and wants to die before she becomes totally dependent. The two met when Millard agreed to work with Compassionate Endings, an organization that helps terminally ill patients choose how and when they die. In addition to his visit to Delilah and lunch with his son, Millard spends time with patients and colleagues. He’s been very careful not to let his family and friends know of his decision: he’s renewed magazine subscriptions, prepaid dues to his club and even requested an absentee ballot. What surprises him is how he feels as his birthday approaches: “Rather than fearful, or even reluctant, he found himself resigned – as though, to paraphrase the High Holiday Amidah, his name was already inscribed on the casualty list inside the Book of Life.” 
The question becomes whether Millard will actually end his life. A secondary quandary is the nature of his relationship to Lysander: will Millard make his son understand why he should change his life? What is interesting is how little time Millard spends thinking about the effect of his suicide on his family. In fact, he’s more concerned about who will take over his position at the hospital. What is clear is that the ending will leave some readers surprised and unsettled.
While “Millard Salter’s Last Day” focuses on one father and son relationship, there are two at the core of “Shtum.” The title of the book is the Yiddish word for quiet or silence. It refers to narrator Ben Jewell’s relationship to Georg, his father, who refuses to speak about his life in Eastern Europe before he moved to England, and to his 10-year-old autistic son, Jonah, who can’t speak. Ben and his wife, Emma, are at a breaking point in their marriage. The two want Jonah, who is not toilet trained and can be violent when he doesn’t get his way, to go to a residential school that will offer him the type of environment in which he might thrive. However, the local authorities have to approve the move, which costs more than sending him to a local school. To increase the chance of Jonah getting the help he needs, Ben and Emma separate, with Ben and Jonah moving in with Georg.
That situation is less than ideal. Ben has never had a good relationship with his father and it doesn’t help that he is making a mess of the business Georg started. Emma, who works as a lawyer, wants Ben to take full responsibility of Jonah now that they are separated, and Ben has difficulty rising to the task. To complicate matters, Georg dislikes the idea of Jonah moving away from home, although Ben tries to explain why Jonah’s life will improve at the residential school. Ben must face not only the tribunal that will determine Jonah’s fate, but his own life decisions, including whether the choices he makes are motivated by selfishness or love. 
“Shtum” is heartwarming and heartrending, in addition to being sad and funny at the same time. The author is brutally honest about what life can be with an autistic child who has no special skills. Jonah raids kitchen cupboards, leaving a mess, and smears his feces across walls when his diaper is not changed. When frustrated, he self-hurts or lashes out at those near him. Yet, it’s clear that Ben deeply loves his son, just as he loves his father, even though they find it difficult – if not impossible – to communicate with each other. Lester’s novel is an excellent look at the harsh reality and the deep, emotional connections found in families touched by autism.