The Lion Seeker
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Are you a stupid or a clever?
Such is the refrain in Isaac Helger’s mind as he makes his way from redheaded hooligan to searching adolescent to striving young man on the make. His mother’s question haunts every choice. Are you a stupid or a clever? Will you find a way to lift your family out of Johannesburg’s poor inner city, to buy a house in the suburbs, to bring your aunts and cousins from Lithuania?
Isaac’s mother is a strong woman and a scarred woman; her maimed face taunts him with a past no one will discuss. As World War II approaches, then falls upon them, they hurtle toward a catastrophic reckoning. Isaac must make decisions that, at first, only seem to be life-or-death, then actually are.
Meanwhile, South Africa’s history, bound up with Europe’s but inflected with its own accents—Afrikaans, Zulu, Yiddish, English—begins to unravel. Isaac’s vibrant, working-class, Jewish neighborhood lies near the African slums; under cover of night, the slums are razed, the residents forced off to townships. Isaac’s fortune-seeking takes him to the privileged seclusion of the Johannesburg suburbs, where he will court forbidden love. It partners him with the unlucky, unsinkable Hugo Bleznick, selling miracle products to suspicious farmers. And it leads him into a feud with a grayshirt Afrikaaner who insidiously undermines him in the auto shop, where Isaac has found the only work that ever felt true. And then his mother’s secret, long carefully guarded, takes them to the diamond mines, where everything is covered in a thin, metallic dust, where lions wait among desert rocks, and where Isaac will begin to learn the bittersweet reality of success bought at truly any cost.
A thrilling ride through the life of one fumbling young hero, The Lion Seeker is a glorious reinvention of the classic family and coming-of-age sagas. We are caught — hearts open and wrecked — between the urgent ambitions of a mother who knows what it takes to survive and a son straining against the responsibilities of the old world, even as he is endowed with the freedoms of the new.
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On it you old bitch, you crinkled-up meshugena, cos I got her, I have her and there is nothing you can do about it, I’ve had my bare fingers deep inside of her and me and her are as close as two people can be, we love each other. Choke on that, you old klafte. Love. When Yvonne picks up, he exhales without knowing he was holding his breath and it’s like a slump of relief. —Hey hey, he says. She nearly told me you were out. It’s our lucky night hey. And he laughs, a wild sound. She does not.
Envelopes from his satchel. The darker one is from the sewing room, the other is from Vance and has a rubber band around it and is bulked with the brickettes inside. To hold it gives a feeling like an electric current through his belly. He puts it down. His hands turn back the flap of the other one. Don’t. He pulls out the forms. Don’t. Bright African moon is strong enough to read his own hand. Don’t. Trudel-Sora Melkin. Dvora Kirtzbacher. Rochel-Dor Kreb. Orli. Friedke. Who is this one, who.
I’m serious. Isaac says, —I wouldn’t if I were you, Barn. Ma brings out a hatchet. New. Sharp. —Here we go, says Isaac. He has been dabbing a napkin in the spilled Scotch and water, now he tilts his head and squeezes the good juices out onto his tongue. —Yitzchok! —Ja Ma? Look at me. Isaac looks at Barney instead: Barney seems a trifle pale. — What is this? he says. —It’s how my mame deals with drunks, Isaac tells him. Turns them into firewood. I hope you got insurance, Barn. —Put that.
The hasp snaps off and Andre comes out headfirst, tumbling hard, a slab of black iron attached to his rear like some demented tail, sliding and thumping musically on the earth behind. Bright red flash of much blood there. Isaac runs at him with the rifle. 56. IN THE HUT Avrom wraps canvas strips around the lacerations on Andre’s wrists. Behind them the coal stove is twisted on its base of concrete, its front end torn or kicked completely off, ashen coals scattered. From his seat at the table.
Passed back in 1930 which he knows now cos it’s about the only thing he ever read up on from his old high school textbooks since he left Athens Boys. Looked it up after that time outside the shul when the okes tried to make like he was an ignorant or something. Read how it was true how the Nat government put a block on anyone trying to come to South Africa from Lithuania and some other countries near there. The bastards saying it had nothing to do with Jews when everyone knew it was only Jews –.