The Second Kingdom


Jim Feast

Originally published in The Evergreen Review Issue 121 in December, 2009.

The Second Kingdom

by Ron Singer
(Cantarabooks, 2008)

Review by Jim Feast

Ron Singer I thought I knew you. No, don’t take that literally. I’ve never met, talked to or corresponded with Singer, but I did read and review for Evergreen his short, pithy, charming memoir, A Song for My Grandmother, about his grandparents’ chicken ranch on Staten Island.

Based on that, I mentally pigeonholed him as one of that numerous bands whose creative gifts only flowered when they recounted their own or relatives’ life journeys. How surprised I was, then, to pick up Singer’s latest volume and read, “I know this is confusing, and I’m not sure if I can explain it right. To biliganas (non-Navajos), anyway.” In other words, here Singer is radically departing from studying his own roots and adopting the viewpoint of a Navajo single mother. He’s shedding his skin, as it were, and trying to inhabit the world of a stranger.

In two of the three long stories that compose this book, Singer – if I can use the following word without its usual negative connotations – ventriloquizes the voices of characters who seem distant from his own experience. (His bio says he taught for 32 years at a Quaker school in New York City.) In the first story, he becomes a Navajo woman and in the second a Turkish hotel clerk. So, while this is not the first question one might ask about the book – the first would be whether it is a good read – the second would undoubtedly be whether his adoptions of these distant personae is skillful and persuasive.

To contextualize the first story, “The Changing Woman Health Conference,” it’s enough to say that its theme is that of an abused woman who comes to understand and empower herself through education. The theme was made popular recently by Sapphire’s sensational Push, which follows in the footsteps of the more nuanced The Color Purple by Alice Walker. In Singer’s version, the narrator, a recovering alcoholic, decides to go to school at Navajo Nation Community College, selling her sheep to get the price of tuition, and bringing her 15-year-old daughter in tow. With a lot of good-humored ribbing and further digs at biliganas, the narrator describes the teachers and fellow students at this school, and how they struggle together to learn something. In the process, Singer is able to both (question 1) tell an entertaining and life-affirming tale and (question 2) to create (at least, for me, a non-Navajo reader) a very believable rendition of how a woman in these circumstances would act and think.

Reading it, of course, I quickly put aside any question of authenticity and simply enjoyed the meandering tale– the narrator warns us that Native American tell stories in non-linear ways – as a well-observed, delightful piece of fiction.

The second piece in the collection, “The Key,” where Singer is equally adept at borrowing voices, is more intercontinental, as the narrative shifts back and forth between the doings of Dave and Judy Schaf, New Yorkers, and those of Turhan Belevi, the manager of a Turkish hotel the couple visited.
Here the satire is a bit more stinging. It concerns the American and Turkish security forces, who begin an investigation when the couple mails the hotel key, which they forgot to return, back to Istanbul. The foolishness of each country’s lawmen is well skewered. The Turks, for example, are upset because the Schafs wrapped the key in a scrap of New York Times which contained what they see as a written, secret message, i.e., the crossword puzzle.

Their American counterparts come up with this: “Our forensics people [says one operative to the couple] have been analyzing a substance found in the package [which carried the key] in question. They have determined that the substance is a powder residue.” It turns out, though, this residue is neither cocaine, anthrax or some other illicit substance but fall-off from some cheap tourist pottery they had purchased in Turkey. They wrapped it in bubble packaging and then used that same packaging to cushion the key. This is enough to send two international police forces on another wild goose chase.

Again, in this story Singer’s character drawing is deft, accurate and memorable. The story moves along at a good clip, each country’s spy catchers hatching more and more improbable ideas about the significance of the key as previous ones prove unworkable. This is another Singer piece that answers both questions: whether it is a good read and a believable use of a foreign mask, affirmatively.

The final story, “The Parents We Deserve,” about a rich couple who, after their real parents die, are at such a loss that they hire another pair of oldsters to pretend to be their parents. This story, too, is life-affirming, but in a more backhanded way. After all, most of the narrative takes places after all the characters have died and gone to heaven! And once you’re dead, complications ensue. For one, how do you introduce your adopted dead parents to your real dead parents?

As you might guess from this description, though highly readable, this last piece can feel a bit strained at times. Perhaps, this attests to the limits of Singer’s imaginative powers. It is hardly registering a major drawback to his skill to note that, while he shows an admirable, occasionally astonishing ability to assume the voices of people from other cultures than his own, his fancy seems a bit overtaxed when he tries to envision social relations in heaven. After all, few writers could even accomplish the former task with his grace and those who could accomplish the second, that of writing plausibly about the afterlife, may, except for Dante, not even exist.

All in all, the Second Kingdom offers the general reader a trip into enriching and pleasant fictional worlds and it gave me a broader idea of Singer’s capabilities. It was my first view of his talent as a ventriloquist.