Focus, by Arthur Miller (228 pgs., 1945, 1984). Miller is one of this country's most famous playwrights. I never knew he wrote & published prose, until I recently read a newly published collection of some of his short stories. Focus is not only his first published novel, but it's also his first full-length published work of any kind, except for some previously published essays in 1944. This novel was published in 1945, when Miller was merely 30 years old. His first published play, All My Sons, appeared in 1947.
Apparently, Miller never published anything but excellent, mature, hefty writing. This book is a wonderful read. The writing is emotive & muscular. There are smacks of Hemingway, but I think many young American writers of that era was influenced by Papa.
Miller wrote a contemporary novel. It takes place mostly in Queens, NY in 1945, before the end of WWII. Miller deals with an anti-Semitism that I didn't know was so prevalent in NYC in those years. My parents never told me stories about that. Maybe, where they lived in Brooklyn, NY they were more sheltered from the anti-Semitism Miller writes about in this novel. I do remember them telling me about resorts in CT which were closed to Jews, even well into the 1950's. Miller has a brief episode in this novel where his characters come face-to-face with that bigotry in CT.
Laurence Newman is the main character in this novel. He is descended from an old, English family that has been well established in the States for hundreds of years. He has moved up the corporate ladder at his place of work. He is quiet & keeps to himself. Newman lives in a home he owns on a quiet street in Queens. His mother lives with him. His neighbors are all in his economic strata. They are working class or lower middle management types who have fled to this part of Queens to escape from the "lower" elements. Newman is a bigoted escapee, like all the rest. None of his bosses & none of his neighbors think he is Jewish.
There is one Jewish family on the block. On the corner there is a candy store/newsstand. Mr. Finkelstein owns the shop & lives above it with his wife & young daughter. Newman passes by everyday & buys his daily newspaper there for his mother to read. He muses little on Finkelstein as an individual human being. Finkelstein has never cheated him, is not unclean, has never shown a knack for getting rich & is always polite & friendly. But Newman still thinks all Jews are dirty, clannish, rude, unclean & cheaters in business.
Newman finds out that his closest friends on the block belong to the Christian Front. Their most pressing local need is to rid the street of Finkelstein. Newman gives his assent to this proposal.
Soon after, he finds his eyesight failing & he gets a pair of glasses. Newman "looks Jewish," when he wears his glasses, because of some ironic quirk of nature. His immediate superior, who has known him for five years, transfers him to a place in the business where the public won't see him. He says he knows that Newman isn't Jewish, but he can't take the risks of him representing the company to the public. He gets married to a woman who he mistakenly thought was Jewish, but isn't. Everyone now assumes he married a Jewish girl. His friends on the street begin to think of him as Jewish.
The rest of the novel deals with Newman's change of sensibilities. His genteel anti-Semitism gives way to confusion & then to anger & finally to a sense of shared fate with the Finkelsteins of the world. His wife tries ever harder to fit into the Christian world & gets cozy with the Christian Front.
This novel is a very interesting analysis of a certain time & place in NYC & how people in similar situations can react differently to bigotry & stress & violence. This slender novel packs a wallop that belies its size.