It takes some serious chops for an author to write a family memoir in which he or she is not the main character. It takes even bigger chops to use the constituent parts of a family memoir to create a work of fiction – a collection of linked short stories, no less. Thankfully, Dave Margoshes is a writer possessed of chops in abundance, and he pulls off these feats beautifully in his new book.
While labelled “fictions,” A Book of Great Worth is essentially a collection of loving portraits of Margoshes’ father (here named Harry Morgenstern) set in the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s. Morgenstern is a journalist who spent most of his career covering labour issues for New York’s Yiddish newspaper, The Day. The collection includes Margoshes’ wonderful story “The Wisdom of Solomon,” a finalist for the 2009 Journey Prize; remarkably, it’s not even the best piece in the book. In nearly every tale, Margoshes reveals a moral conundrum that helped shape his father as a man and a writer, and these make for very compelling reading. From “The Farmhand,” with all its tensions (sexual and otherwise), to the morality plays of “A False Moustache,” “A Distant Relation,” and “Music by Rodgers, Lyrics by Hart,” Margoshes treats us to a wide array of virtuosic storytelling.
What’s remarkable about A Book of Great Worth is the way Margoshes is able to leave his own first-person narration in the background and keep the focus on Morgenstern, even while referring to him almost exclusively as “my father.” The distance that this might have created between subject and reader is negated by the skilful way Margoshes blends elements of fiction with a family history he knows intimately. The result is a remarkable braiding of literal and literary truth, a Jewish family’s history elevated to the level of lore, and a delightfully envisioned portrait of specific times and places.
Margoshes spent many years crafting this collection – the earliest story dates back to the 1980s – but it’s been worth the wait. Hopefully A Book of Great Worth will bring some much-deserved attention to this chronically underappreciated author. At the very least, he’s done his father proud.