- I, Wabenzi: A Souvenir
- Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 480 pp.
Although this is a sly, sidelong-glance kind of book that repeatedly takes you to a different place from where you thought you were headed, Rafi Zabor doesn’t keep the reader in suspense about its odd title. “Wabenzi” is an African tribal word for the “in crowd,” the top dogs—in Zabor’s example, the young rich kids who drive a Mercedes, whom he beat out for a parking space by roaring at them at the top of his lungs. “I was certain that I would never, ever be a member of that particular tribe,” he writes. He is not keen on symbols of worldly status—what he calls “the iconography of loot.” So the title is ironic.
With considerable regret, I choose to give I, Wabenzi three stars. I started out liking it very much for its wit, its rich vocabulary, the fascinating array of characters who flow through the author’s life. Zabor has been a jazz drummer and written extensively on music for various top publications, so it’s no surprise that you can hear the sinuous rhythms and inventions of jazz in his prose.
A car is “contumelious,” his family is “extrovert and farraginous,” a mourning dove coos a “broken ritardando,” a problem with his parents’ will supposedly makes him murmur “usufruct,” his memories of the women in his youth are “nacreous and pearlescent.” He watches television, “clicking discontentedly on the zapper from zilch to shining zilch.” On a search for boots, he walked into Gogol Shoes in Northern California, and “behind the counter . . . stood a man of such exemplary Gogolian caricature that my disbelief suspenders had snapped and the pants of my credibility fallen around my ankles.”
“Jack had written some strange stories in those years,” such as “ ‘The Ball-Licking Belle of Atlantic City,’ in which the decrepit, near-dead agonists shoot a paretic porno movie without film in the camera.” Another friend “came on like one nerving himself up to climb into the ring and duke it out with the Godzilla of mortality.” Sometimes the wordplay gets a little too enamored of itself: “This Malibu Classic handled like a top-heavy rubber duck in a tempest-torn and gong-tormented bath.” Eh?
To accompany the vocabulary, the book is a trove of cultural references, many of which will escape all but the most broadly-based reader. “I know ya woikin’ fo’ the C-I-A,” someone sings at Zabor, quoting a hit single by War. Gil Evans’ French horn intro to “Sketches of Spain,” Uri Geller, “Klaatu barada nikto,” Gurdjieff are invoked. His mother’s obstetrician (who may have helped her abort a female twin of the author in order to save his life) was Dr. Adropoz, whose son would become known as Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. There is a discussion of Koestler’s theory that European Jews descended from the Khazars.
Although there are road trips, and a long spell at a spiritual retreat in rural England, Zabor is clearly an urban creature: at his best when describing the sights and sounds of cities, and their denizens:
As I walked further east more beggars appeared in the slipstream, the sidewalk a busy weave of bodies from whose colors they emerged, ashen signposts marking the stations of another pilgrimage, another way. In the crowd those not mortally wounded were armored to the teeth, hard eyes going past atop impenetrable fashion statements, haircuts of offput, emanations of Don’t Bother Me. I might have been among them if I’d still been capable of the insularity, but I walked through them leaking money from my pockets and the subtler blood of hope from wounds that seemed to be just everywhere on my body. The occasional apparition of a beautiful woman stunned me—improbable in this place, under obvious attack from all sides: loved, hated, coveted, resented, exploited, feared: some of them going by postered on the sides of buses, showing the holy curve of cleavage: what the place had left of Deity. A sentence from a lost chapter of the Bear ticked through my mind: men take refuge from their own ugliness of spirit in the beauty of women.
The reference in the final sentence is to Zabor’s prize-winning 1988 novel, The Bear Comes Home.
Despite the wordiness and flashes of erudition, the tone is quite pleasant, almost intimate without being overly familiar (“What skies? Oh, I’ll tell you later”). Zabor seems to make a concerted effort not to make himself appear too interesting, though the quality of his friends certainly indicates he must have been so: “I talked a line of modesty, even to myself, but that was a hedge against my egotism, pure self-defense.” It is characteristic of his self-undercutting style that at one point he recalls telling himself, “Of course I would never stoop to autobiography, which, pace Dr. Johnson, is the true scoundrel’s last refuge. . . .”
After a delightful beginning, though, I got bogged down about a third to halfway in, partly because Zabor introduces a lot of people who pass through without really adding to the story or creating a larger arc of narrative. The reader begins to feel like a stranger at a nice but very long cocktail party.
Another drawback, increasingly frustrating, is that so many promising biographical details simply fall by the wayside, and you wonder why he fails to pursue them. In passing, we learn that Zabor was a civil rights worker in Mississippi at age 18, and worked in the McGovern campaign after the California primary win several years later. The account of a girlfriend’s traumatic abortion in Tokyo in the late 1960s receives stark but shorter shrift than meandering conversations with friends. There is hardly a word about any of the name jazz musicians Zabor must have played with or seen over the years.
He does a more complete job of describing his forebears than of relating his own experiences. (His father, original name Zaborovsky, escaped Poland in 1938, as did several other colorful relations.) One cannot help thinking this is a conscious choice, because Zabor recounts long, detailed conversations with close friends, dating back decades; and, in fact, at one point he says that until he was 21, “I was the kind of person who remembered every conversation he’d ever had and could resume or revise them at any paragraph.”
The author announces early on that following his parents’ deaths, he plunged into a three-year depression from which he emerged with a resolve to travel to Turkey and Israel. Naturally the reader looks forward to the trip and learning what brought the author out of his funk and back to writing. But despite all the build-up, this never happens. Zabor makes out his will, cuts all ties, crosses the Atlantic, stops in England to see some old friends . . . and the narrative loses the thread—at least as far as a pilgrimage to Turkey is concerned.
The narrative jumps around casually in time, so dates are often unclear. Zabor’s parents died in the mid 1980s, and the projected trip to the Middle East by way of Europe followed, but when the book settles down for a long account of Zabor’s attempt to develop a “new form of consciousness” at a spiritual community in rural England called the Beshara Centre, I gather we are back in the early 1970s. This is the crux of the book—its first illustrations (of the farm, a ritual symbol, even a three-part drum harmony the author improvised with compatriots while there) and the detail tell us so—but it, and the book as a whole, ends rather abruptly.
A second volume is promised. Perhaps it will have all the things this one seems to be missing. Perhaps it will tie together all the seeming loose ends in a way that will make both volumes worth four or five stars. Time will tell.