In Martin Drapkin’s novel Poor Tom, the main character ponders life and death during a year of transitions in his key relationships.
Julius Dickman is a house painter and a professional photographer. He suffers from insomnia and a host of phobias, including fear of being trapped in drive-through lines at restaurants. He also stutters. He lives with his girlfriend Naomi and her two children. His relationship with Naomi is rocky at best, as Julius tries to please the difficult Naomi – and generally fails.
The book unfolds mainly through Julius’s internal musings on relationships, religion, his favorite deli, and unavailable women. Julius has a standing bagel-and-Marx Brothers movie date with his father, a classically trained actor who has just finished a career-capping performance as King Lear. His father now sits around in his ratty bathrobe, slowly deteriorating.
The author is a solid writer, but Julius is not a particularly sympathetic character. Although he tries to be the good son, friend, and father figure, his constant self-deprecation and internal monologues become tiresome and repetitive. More importantly, Julius is one step shy of a Jewish stereotype, a man who randomly throws out common Yiddish words and phrases like “vey iz mir,” or makes statements like “…I recalled being enchanted with her lilting voice. I even liked her hooked Yid shnoz…” That doesn’t enhance his likeability quotient.
There are some fun and humorous moments, as when Julius recounts famous Marx Brothers lines. However, most interest in the book comes from the literary references to Shakespearean plays. The book’s title refers to Edgar, son of the Earl of Gloucester in King Lear, who has to “disappear” by becoming a mad beggar named Poor Tom. Here, Julius’s father, worried he too is going mad, looks at Julius, and says, “Not mad. Please, Tom.”
Many readers will find the book a challenge. But for some, coming across those Shakespearean comparisons (and brushing up on their Shakespeare) will make Drapkin’s book a worthwhile literary exercise.
Also available as an ebook.