Review: Heroic Measures

Domestic drama eclipses terror trauma


By Jill Ciment
Pushkin Press, £7.99

As the topographical star of Jill Ciment's novel, Heroic Measures, New York is indeed a wonderful town - but a town in chaos and under threat.

An abandoned fuel truck is blocking the main tunnel, and the missing driver may - or may not be - a bomb-toting terrorist.

That's the background, media-hyped story against which the minor morality tale of oldsters Ruth and Alex Cohen might have ended up some lesser writer's shrug.

Ciment, however, wittily places the Cohens centre stage: Ruth and Alex remind us that, even when the world quakes, what matters most is often the profoundly personal - will their stricken dachshund die? Will the sale of their cherished but worn apartment make them overnight millionaires?

In a single, charged weekend, their happiness turns on a sealed bid and a small-animal vet's skill with the scalpel.

This is a novel of exquisite descriptive detail and a fond, mournful humour that, on our side of the pond, is almost exclusive to Alan Bennett. It's a novel of whistling hearing aids, In Memoriam cards for a dead Irish setter, and cinnamon sticks bubbling on the hob top to woo would-be house buyers. It's a novel about what we treasure, what we will let go, and how hopes persist for a future, any future, however short.

Alex and Ruth Cohen, 78 and 74, are certainly nervous hosts on Open House Saturday, showing off their fifth-storey, walk-up condo on the East side. The projected sale profit strikes the Cohens - a childless pair of radical reds - as ethically indecent. But it's also elating - a newer home, complete with elevator, swims enticingly into prospect. No more stairs! When Ruth, a child of the Depression, first heard the agent's asking price, she found "the word millionaire still held a magical spell, Fred Astaire dancing in top hat and tails."

Alex's father, an immigrant shoe salesman, had himself idolised millionaires "as he had once revered rabbis in the old country, as men close to God."

Secretly, Alex views any imminent move as inconvenient. An artist, encumbered by canvasses, he is working on an extraordinary project… illuminating (as a kind of medieval manuscript) the dossier of files that the FBI had kept on the Cohens but returned (on request) when declassified in the 1990s: "All their old friends, even those who had traded in their manifestos for the Torah, had sent away for theirs".

Meanwhile, across a grid-locked city, old dachshund Dorothy languishes in a canine clinic paralysed by a ruptured disc. Caged close by are a chihuahua with cardiac arrest and a poodle passing kidney stones.

Ciment endows Dorothy with anthropomorphic charm so that she can clock her surroundings as "a skyscraper-size warren of illness and emergencies." Surgery could prove fatal but Dorothy must be given every chance. Money is no object, for a pet, it seems - though, for property, the drive is strong to press for 10,000 dollars more. Ten thousand dollars, after all, is more than Alex earned in four years of combat, Ruth's annual salary for many years.

You love the Cohens for living, thus far, for principle and not for profit. You love them a little more for being only human in the end.

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