You don’t have to be a Jewish lawyer to love Jere Krakoff’s satirical novel Something Is Rotten in Fettig (Anaphora Literary Press, 2015.) But it will go a long way in relating to the litigious, schmaltzy world in which the story is set. Imagine a courtroom drama written by Franz Kafka and directed by Mel Brooks. Angst and hilarity abound, with side dishes of neurosis and paranoia.
The plot is relatively simple. The protagonist, Leonard Plotkin, owns a kosher meat shop that lacks customers. To draw business, Plotkin moves his butcher table from the back room to his front window. Overnight, huge crowds are mesmerized by his “flamboyant style of meat cutting.” However, no one enters his shop, perhaps due to its reputation for handing out insults along with the short ribs. Instead, they merely marvel and applaud. Tired of putting on a free show, Plotkin covers up his shop window. Not with a curtain or butcher paper -- with mud.
Normally, this would not provide sufficient drama to keep readers turning pages. However, Plotkin inhabits a bizarre country named Republica in which smearing a shop window with mud is a crime against humanity and the legal system takes its cues from Torquemada. This would be absurd if not for the chilling fact that Krakoff’s novel echoes the “alternative facts” now tumbling out of the Trump White House. If readers don’t grasp the connection, Krakoff drives it home by referring to the citizens of his fictional world as “Republicans.”
When are we?
A former attorney working with the ACLU National Prison Project, the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, and the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project, Krakoff is relentless in his depiction of a legal and prison system that is more concerned with the minutia of the law than with common decency and human rights. However, in turning each and every legal injustice into a knee-slapping joke, the author runs the risk of banging the drum one time too many.
Take, for instance, the Dickensian glee Krakoff takes in naming his characters: Emile Threadbare, Kierkegaard Thumbnail, Olaf Dybyk, Cicero Bookbinder. Need I go on? Krafkoff does. Then there is the matter of the time in which the story occurs: The novel seems to take place in the Yiddish-speaking Lower East Side. Anti-Semitism is rife. The streets are paved not in gold but in despair.
Perhaps Krakoff chose the distant past to avoid being sued by former judges and officials who might recognize themselves. But I do not think his Twilight Zone time frame does the novel any favors. How many readers can relate to a world of sweatshops and pushcarts? Setting the story in the 1960s, the crucible of the protest era, might have been a better choice.
A bleak comedy
I found the novel claustrophobic, densely packed with misery, poverty, and corruption, but I have no doubt that was the author’s intention. If his goal was to write a comic Crime and Punishment, he succeeded. Case in point: “A moderately psychotic trustee on the Warehouse’s garbage detail, Anatole Illianov Gopnik had plummeted from the heights of the Republic’s artistic world to the depths of an insane asylum after setting fire to works displayed in the Museum of Despondent Paintings, where he had been the Head Curator.”
Though I'm not a big fan of parodies of 19th-century Russian literature, I read the novel within three days, if only for the immense pleasure of the delightful caricatures at the start of each of its 60 chapters -- and also for the aspects of the story that had nothing to do with the law. The author wisely created love interests for Plotkin and his chicken-plucking associate, Primo Astigmatopolous. Although Plotkin’s love for the novel’s heroine, Ana Bloom, is unrequited, she embodies the only glimmer of hope and compassion in an otherwise bleak and despondent world. Krakoff uses a classic literary trope, turning a prostitute into a woman of virtue in the form of Magdalana, Primo’s devoted lover and brothel employee.
Ultimately, this is a novel constructed upon a tremulous faultline. Left-leaning lawyers, judges, and prison inmates will pee themselves with laughter. The book was written about them, for them. As for the rest of us, it is an acquired taste.