Like Oedipus, Robby Weisglass, the hero and narrator of Andrew Bergman’s latest novel, deserves to have a complex named after him. With a mother who slips into his bed on some nights (he’s 12 at the time), a beautiful and brazen 21-year-old sister who slips into his bed on other nights — it’s enough to make the ancient Greeks look bush league and enough to keep a psychiatrist occupied for about 20 years, which it does. His name is Dr. Singer.
Bergman is a comedy screenwriter (Blazing Saddles, Honeymoon in Vegas) and director (It Could Happen to You), so it doesn’t come as a surprise — just a relief — that Sleepless Nights has more in common with Portnoy’s Complaint than with some child-abuse case history.
It’s a darker, more disquieting and moving book than Philip Roth’s, but the theme is the same: family-encumbered life in a middle-class Jewish enclave (in this case, Queens, New York) during a time (in this case, the Eisenhower era) that was more innocent than ours and therefore more guilty as well. But Weisglass’ complaint is very different from Portnoy’s. It’s not a question of trying to remove sexual inhibitions with a skillful bed partner or two. Weisglass wears out the couch and the patience of Dr. Singer as he recalls the unwanted but unresisted attentions of his mother and sister, the leukemia that killed his first true love, and the death of his father. All he wants is ordinary domestic contentment.
The story sounds a bit pathetic, even corny. But it’s a tribute to Bergman — or perhaps to Dr. Singer — that the narrative reaches a degree of detachment. Sleepless Nights is sometimes comic, more often matter-of-fact, and always sharp enough to keep its unsentimental poise. The best parts of the book are the characterizations: the parents, refugees from Hitler who can’t stop being refugees, who turn the Weisglass family into an apprehensive island in a placid American sea. The warped, voracious mother; the tired, oblivious father. A chain-smoking rabbi. Robby’s nonchalant sister, still as breezy in middle age about their youthful incest as she was when it was one of her many escape routes. Recounting the sins of the family, his sister observes, ”That little apartment. I’ve been everywhere, I’ve done everything with everybody, but nothing has ever been stranger than what went on in those four rooms.” Bergman’s happy ending is anticlimactic. The strength of this compelling novel is that it conveys the strangeness of those four rooms with more humor and wonder than self-pity. A-