In Tattoo for a Slave, 92-year-old novelist Hortense Calisher (A Sunday Jew) renders a personalized history of the last 100 years of the United States. Hailed as a mixture of fiction and autobiography, Calisher's memoir tells the story of her Southern, Jewish, slave-owning family, beginning with her father's birth in 1861.
Language, with its potential to be playful, evocative, elusive, nuanced and shocking, is the real star of the book. Calisher's style has appropriately been compared to that of Vladimir Nabokov; some may also find it reminiscent of John Barth. Calisher hopscotches between memories and related incidents, creating a rich tapestry rather than a driving narrative. The three characters that emerge most vividly are her immigrant mother, her business-tycoon father and her self-engrossed brother. They are distinct individuals, but suggest different facets of the American experience.
Calisher's mother, Hedwig, represents the survivalism of immigrants: she is unsentimental, opportunistic and contemptuous of the new world in which she finds herself. Calisher's father, Joe, is the clear hero of the book. Pressured to support a sprawling family, he subordinates his artistic, intellectual interests to become successful in the perfume industry, evincing the classic American tension between culture and commerce. Her brother emerges perhaps the most vividly. He appears to have inherited only the greed and self-absorption of his mother and father with none of their redeeming characteristics. His character points cautiously to the end result of America's relentless quest for money and personal ease.
Perhaps the most intriguing thing about Calisher's portrait of her family and her country is the apparent distance she keeps from her own motherland. She often refers ironically to Amerika, spelled as German immigrants spelled it as if she were describing it from the point of view of a foreigner, rather than someone born in Richmond, Virginia. Lynn Hamilton writes from Tybee Island, Georgia.