Rollin’ down the Imperial Highway
With a big nasty redhead at my side
Santa Ana wind blowin’ hot from the north
And we was born to ride…
–”I Love L.A.” by Randy Newman
Philip Lachman, a pushing 40 TV writer turned proud public school teacher, loves Los Angeles, too, but he’d love even more if the big nasty redhead wasn’t his vindictive ex-wife. And while he may have been born to ride, some circumstances beyond his lawyer’s control has repo’d him a new one by leaving him car-less in California, if still born to ride — public transit, that is.
About the only things Philip can rely on, as chronicled in A Short History of a Tall Jew, Dennis Danziger’s deftly-rendered account of hilarity and heart, are the Santa Anas and a correspondingly blustery custody battle over his teenage kids, who are really alright despite bouts of what-have-you-done-for-me-lately wailing and gnashing of teeth. Caught in the ensuing, year-after-year break-up upshot of divorce court, custody battles, and visitation shuffles, Zack and Lily’s lives are mostly at the mercy of their mother’s – and her high powered attorney‘s — unreasonable machinations and maneuvers. It takes a toll on them, and constantly concerns their father, who sees the short-term repercussions:
…some days, my children seemed like miniature Wily Lomans – exhausted, bent over, schlepping their backpacks stuffed with books and clothes from one parent’s house to the other’s. They’d been, at times, under court orders to skip baseball practice in order to undergo art therapy.
And the long-range view:
As much as I loved Zack and Lily and spent more than a decade of my life fighting so they could be an integral part of my life, I could not have dreamed up a worse childhood for them. Most days I was pleased but stunned they hadn’t slipped into multiple personalities. Whether or not I fought for them, won extra time with them, from the moment they were thrown into this endless legal battle, they were screwed.
Which seemed to be the case since family life had become kid-tested and insufferably mom-approved as court costs, increasing and unneeded child support demands, false charges, and restraining orders led to loss of home, of automobile, turnstile teaching jobs, and collision-course contentment for Philip.
While we’re at a little ex-spousal money-grubbing and sanity grab, what’s a little angst and anxiety without a little alienation as the ever-perseverant Philip enters the dating market again? But while the flesh may be willing, the spirit is increasing weak as the full effects of life’s downward spiral takes in the social whirl, too. Still, the intrepid Philip has vowed that by the following Valentine’s Day he will remarry and provide a new step mom and stable family life for Zack and Lily. After a while, however, as Danziger has in wit-filled woe detailed these romantic events – the resourceful Philip is indeed not without his prospects, even scoping the singles scene in his Synagogue – it becomes apparent that he may not be missing much: “Was it me or was it Los Angeles? Was the town just brimming with sexy oddballs or was I a magnet for women who were intentionally not taking their meds?”
At the culmination of his troubles, romantic and routine, Philip at his most downhearted opts for solace through prayer, in his usual matter-of fact manner: “Blessed Art Thou, Lord our God, Creator of it all” — he begins by way of spiritual greetings and salutations — “if you exist, you’ve got to be disappointed in me. Heck I’m disappointed in me.” After remunerating some of his blessings, he signs off with a poignant plea: “So if you’re listening and you care about one of your lesser creations, guide me. Show me the light. I feel disconnected from my own body. From my family. From my work. From everyone in the whole world. Even you. That’s about it for now. Amen.”
By turns wistful and witty, and always winning, A Short History of a Tall Jew displays the richly-honed craftsmanship of Danziger, a former sitcom writer (Taxi, Kate and Allie), as its plots and subplots, main characters and secondary figures evoke emotions and reactions at the turn of a page. And indeed, in that page is a skillful turn of phrase, too, as direct-hit deadpan one-liners complement the fully fleshed-out episodic scenarios and storylines couching and advancing our Romeo and grateful father getting up everyday eking out, seeking out, and working to attain a life worthy of more than a nasty redhead and bus fumes. The seamless Short History of a Tall Jew captures — as Danziger conveys in stellar fashion — the nuances that get carried along with the narrative swing shifts, from haplessness to happiness, evoking engrossing empathy and out-loud bellylaughs.