Imagine suddenly finding out that a defining aspect of your identity was not what you thought it was all your life – that you weren’t really who or what you thought you were. That’s what happens to members of the Frumkiss clan in Michael Wex’s very funny comic novel about three generations of a Jewish family in Toronto.
While the Toronto-based Wex is best known for his New York Times best-seller, Born to Kvetch: Yiddish Language and Culture in All of Its Moods, and its follow-up, Just Say Nu: Yiddish for Every Occasion (When English Just Won’t Do) – books that established Wex as one of the foremost contemporary commentators on the Yiddish language – he has always been, first and foremost, a first-rate storyteller. And The Frumkiss Family Business is quite the story.
It begins with a 1955 prologue that introduces us to a dodo bird character named Yankee Gallstone on an early (and fictional) CBC TV kids’ show called The New Curiosity Shop. Yankee is sort of along the lines of Jerome the Giraffe and Rusty the Rooster from The Friendly Giant, or, more probably, if my memory serves me well, like Howard the Turtle from Razzle Dazzle – except that Yankee Gallstone spoke in a heavy Yiddish accent and sometimes actually said things in Yiddish.
The actor who played Yankee Gallstone was Elyokim Faktor, a famous Old World Yiddish writer who arrived in Canada after the Holocaust. As the story begins in 2008, Faktor has just died at the age of 103 probably from the effects of following an all-kugel diet for several years. Faktor’s daughter, Tammy, was married to Earl Frumkiss, founder of a chain of podiatry clinics (and star of obnoxious TV commercials promoting Frumkiss Foot Care), and the book’s namesake.
Much of the action revolves around Earl and Tammy’s three adult children: the brilliant Rachel, unhappily married and not doing anything with her PhD in invertebrate palaeontology (“prehistoric ants were her thing”); Randall, a second-rate comedian; and the beautiful Vanessa, a former performance artist, now living in Jerusalem and improbably married to the rebbe of Moginey Erets (Shields of the Land), a fanatically anti-Zionist Chassidic sect.
Among the other important characters are Chana, Elyokim Faktor’s second wife and widow, who came to Canada from Poland as a child and has a fascinating and hysterical back story of her own as the owner of a fine china shop and who, in her professional life, passes herself off as Mrs. Aubrey, an upper crust British widow; and Allan Milner, a hustler and Faktor’s wannabe biographer.
Much of the laugh-out-loud stuff in the early parts of the book comes from how Wex introduces the life stories of the various characters and from the way he writes about the conflicts and resentments that have been built up over the years among the family members. Each of the significant characters gets a chapter that tells his or her own particular story.
The plot really thickens when Milner, whose very existence is disdained by Chana, and who is having an affair with Vanessa that is about as improbable as her marriage to the rebbe, leaks a shocking discovery about Tamara Szulc, Elyokim Faktor’s first wife – the mother of Tammy, Earl Frumkiss’ wife – that calls into question a defining aspect of the Frumkiss family identity. Among the factors (or should I say faktors?) contributing to the book’s success are the way Wex depicts and blends religious Jewish life, secular Jewish life and popular culture. He also nails his portrayal of Bathurst Manor, the predominantly Jewish neighbourhood in Toronto where much of the book is set.
As much as I’ve enjoyed Wex’s explorations of Yiddish etymology, I really hope that he keeps focusing on satirical and comic fiction. The Frumkiss Family Business joins his brief 2007 novella, The Adventures of Micah Mushmelon, Boy Talmudist, as favourites among the Jewish-centric fiction I’ve read in recent years.