Don’t Ever Get Old by Daniel Friedman
In Don’t Ever Get Old by Daniel Friedman (Minotaur Books, 2012), eighty-seven-year old Baruch “Buck” Schatz used to be a homicide detective with a reputation like Dirty Harry but, when his old friend Jim Wallace makes a death-bed confession he let a Nazi go for a bar of gold, this is a wake-up call. In 1944, they had been in a POW camp run by Heinrich Ziegler. Buck had additional problems because he was Jewish. The idea Ziegler might still be alive slowly eats at Buck, but his wife has her feet on the ground with lines like, “Nazis don’t have gold, Buck. You’re thinking of leprechauns.” From this you’ll understand Daniel Friedman does one-liners as our geriatric ex-detective slowly talks himself into the hunt. This is not, you understand, an easy decision. He’s not exactly the fastest man on his feet and his hand would probably shake if he pointed a gun at anyone.
What tips it for him are the contempt of the local police who think he should go back to being senile, and the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Apparently their agents vaguely looked for Zeigler but information went missing from the files and Avram Silver, the man who tried to keep the hunt going, was discouraged. When Buck and his grandson call Silver, he lets a little nugget fall. The Nazi may be in St. Louis. Suddenly, the wild goose chase got narrowed down to something more manageable. But why should Buck get back into the action? You can spout all kinds of bullshit about war crimes and justice but, for an eighty-seven-year old retired homicide detective, it would be personal. Ziegler almost beat him to death in the POW camp. Even after all these years, revenge would be sweet. For everyone else who knows this man might still be alive, the motive would be the gold. All Nazi leprechauns better watch out if the end of the rainbow is in St. Louis.
Books like this are slightly problematical. As I commented in my review of Voices of the Dead by Peter Leonard, our modern culture has developed ambivalence about the Holocaust. Anger has been replaced by silence. With the passage of time, the enormity of the crime has been eroded. In the public’s imagination, new atrocities have taken the place of the Nazi attempt at extermination. You need only think of Cambodia and Rwanda to see one group systematically trying to remove the other whether for political or racial motives. This is not intended to devalue the Holocaust nor, indeed, to dishonour the memory of those who died. But simply to see this atrocity as being part of a continuum of extermination policies based on racial or other characteristics of difference. But the real problem is in defining the benefit to society to continue the prosecution of those who have survived, the most recent being the case of Heinrich Boere. In 2009, this former SS member was charged with three murders. To get a conviction, you have to dehumanise an individual Nazi. This is what the Nazis did on a national scale to Jews as a justification for their extermination. Criminals like Boere who escape justice get old. It’s not clear what moral value accrues to a modern society for punishing one man for what he did sixty-five years ago. Boere began serving a life sentence at the age of ninety.
For me, the most interesting book on this subject remains The Iron Tracks by Aharon Appelfeld. It makes no bones about the personal nature of revenge. Unfortunately, Peter Leonard loses his nerve and changes the nature of the plot from revenge to self-defence. This brings me to Don’t Ever Get Old which has now won my Award for the most entertaining. It may seem a callous evaluation. The Holocaust and its aftermath are supposed to be treated with tactful reverence. Yet Daniel Friedman has assembled a cast of characters that win prizes for their excesses. Take Dr. Lawrence Kind as an example. He wants Buck to get the gold and give it to his mega-church because he’s been losing too much of the church’s money to the casinos in Mississippi. Perhaps he classifies himself as one of the deserving poor. Fortunately for Buck, he doesn’t hang around for very long. His morals were dubious anyway, although his choice of the woman to marry was probably right.
Norris Feely, who has the honour to be Jim Wallace’s brother-in-law, wants the gold because he’s a greedy, no-good son-of-a-bitch. Then there’s Yitzchak Steinblatt, a giant Russian who’s been sent to intimidate Buck, and T. Addleford Pratt of the Silver Gulch Saloon who reckons he’s entitled to the gold because it will pay off Dr. Kind’s gambling debts. I hope you’re following this because it should give you a flavour of the book and a good reason for wanting to read it. When our eighty-seven-year old ex-homicide detective is finally provoked into picking up his Smith & Wesson .357 Magnum (and refuses to celebrate his eighty-eighth birthday), you can imagine what his wife would say about the quality of his eyesight and the brain behind it. Then there’s Detective Randall Jennings. He’s not one of Buck’s biggest fans but figures he might solve a mess of crimes if he can keep up with the old guy. Then there’s Buck’s grandson, William Tecumseh Schatz (Tequila to his friends), who thinks his grandfather is an ornery, senile, half-crazy old fuck but, with some gold in the offing, perhaps they can work together.
In the end Don’t Ever Get Old does say some wise things about the passage of time and whether revenge solves anything. It also gives us a chance to see the value of a relationship between and old man and his grandson. As an expert in the semiotics of film might say, “The elderly in our cultural narratives signify mortality, either the annihilation of the self, or the preservation of wisdom by passing it on. This character’s story arc is a journey toward death, and toward finding his peace with that inevitability.” After I made you read that I hope I need not say anything hyperbolic. This is a very good book. You should read it.
This was nominated as a Best First Novel in the 2013 Edgar Awards.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.