Prayers for the Living is a sprawling novel, a family epic. Written by the late Alan Cheuse, who was a commentator for NPR, his vast conversational experience is apparent throughout the book, which is told through conversation, narrated by a woman named Minnie Bloch, who chronicles the life of her grandson, Manny, and his joys, his struggles, and his demons. Prayers for the Living is a sprawling novel, a family epic. Written by the late Alan Cheuse, who was a commentator for NPR, his vast conversational experience is apparent throughout the book, which is told through conversation, narrated by a woman named Minnie Bloch, who chronicles the life of her grandson, Manny, and his joys, his struggles, and his demons.
That being said, the novel’s prose style isn’t for everybody. Minnie Bloch is a wordy character; her train of thought is unpredictable and constantly swerving. And as the narrator of the book, her narration often feels tiring, at times disorienting, and occasionally exhausting:
Mother. Light up ahead. And then turn. And turn again. And turn again. And park. Walk. These dangerous streets without good light. And in the center, the building. Classrooms. Guards. Against myself. Should I read? What if? Should I? Now class is here. And the others. Not the mothers. No one here a mother but me. Children. I am old enough. To read or not to read. And if I don’t? He will think. And if I do? He will think. What? I have a feeling. Here they are. Here he is. Others. Mothers? Me only.
The story of Manny is told over a series of restaurant conversations—a man of remarkably ranging characteristics; a rabbi who abandons the religious life in search of a “business” career; a family man who’s cheated on his wife, Maby, the same woman he’s also physically abused in the past.
Although, the often-tiresome quality of the narrative is not to discredit Cheuse’s often wonderfully entertaining wordplay, and his spitfire dialogue that he has absolutely mastered, here on full display in an argument between Manny and Maby:
“You’re raising your voice. Please don’t raise your voice. I’m sitting right here next to you.” “Right here next to me? Right here? You’re not here. You’re in your study writing a sermon. You’re talking to committees. You’re in the city at a board meeting. Let me tell you about a bored meeting. You want to know about a bored meeting? Meeting with you is a bored meeting. Right now you bore me. Life with you is a terribly boring meeting, do you know that?”
The story of Manny is fascinating; though as it’s told by Minnie Bloch, his grandmother, she often feels like an unnecessary obstacle standing in the way of the real story. Manny’s story is wrapped within her story, and this narrative technique, more often than not, created too much narrative and emotional distance for me as a reader, this wall lessening the effect of potentially powerful scenes, as they often feel like vignettes filtered through the lens of Minnie Bloch.
There’s truly a remarkable story here, in Alan Cheuse’s novel, but it is wrapped up in too many layers and becomes convoluted. In that regard, Prayers for the Living’s experimentalism works against itself. Again, there’s a wonderful story hidden below the surface of this, but it ultimately takes too long to get there.