M ichael Frank’s uproarious memoir, The Mighty Franks (4th Estate £9.99) , winner of this year’s Jewish Quarterly/Wingate Prize has received terrific acclaim and it takes less than a page to find out why.
It is the story of a crazy Jewish family in Los Angeles, set mainly in the late 1960s and ’70s. “The Mighty Franks?” cries the author/narrator’s mother, “the Mighty Crazy Franks is who they are, and your aunt is their mascot.”
There are two things wrong with the Franks and it doesn’t take long to find out which is the more serious. First, Michael’s family is complicated with a capital C. His aunt Harriet is his father’s sister and is married to Irving, his mother’s brother. Michael’s two grandmothers share an apartment together and have a relationship that makes What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? look benign. This is one great dysfunctional Jewish family. The grandmothers hate each other, the grown-ups hate each other and everyone hates Aunt Harriet.
From the first sentence, Aunt Harriet takes centre-stage. She is one of the great monsters of modern literature, think Medusa crossed with the mother in Psycho — and that’s on a good day!
From the beginning, we know that one of her main problems is that she and Irving never had children. As a result, she has become more than an aunt to her nephews, in particular, to her oldest, smartest nephew, Mike, who is telling us about her.
Harriet doesn’t know the meaning of the word “boundaries”. A successful Hollywood screenwriter, she looks down on everyone in the family except for her mother and, sometimes, her husband, the much put-upon Irving. She is richer, smarter and more aggressive than the others.
This partly explains the “peculiar second-tier status” of Mike’s parents. Harriet and her mother regard them as also-rans, not good enough for Michael, so she takes over his education. Aunt Harriet tells him what to read, who are the great artists and film-makers, what’s the way to think and speak. His parents attempt a feeble fight-back but they are no match for her. She’s just grander, meaner, more feisty. From first page to last, she bestrides The Mighty Franks.
At its best, this is a jaw-dropping account, full of life and energy. It has a good sense of place and time and, in Aunt Harriet, it has a great central character. You can’t put it down.
David Herman is the JC’s chief fiction reviewer