The Book of Daniel

The Book of Daniel Summary and Analysis of “Sternlicht Rapping” – “Alone in the Cold War with Franny and Zooey”


Daniel begins this section with the fast-paced, manic words of Artie Sternlicht. He spouts off expletives and thoughts on what really makes a revolution - “You put down theorizing about it, dreaming about it, waiting for it, preparing for it, demonstrating for it. All that is less than being in it and therefore not it, and therefore will never be it.” This revolution cannot be like Fidel Castro’s because they need to make it their own and need to understand how their country is different. The system uses double-think and it is not an ordinary repression. Voices from outside the window call up jokes and insults to Sternlicht and he jubilantly leaned out the window and yells “EVERYONE ON THIS BLOCK IS UNDER ARREST!” Music and the pulse of the street fill the evening.

Artie moved on to his view that one could not make a revolution just by talking about social problems. People were used to the quick stories and lasting images of commercials, and the lessons of the revolution had to be similarly impactful. The radicals needed to give the media material. They all needed to be celebrities. The next month they were going to Washington and exorcize the Pentagon; they were going to “overthrow the United States with images!”

Daniel interjects with an idea for an article about radical thought. In each stage of radical development there is an early period characterized by intense creativity and excitement. Connections between everything are made until nothing is left. At this point however, society is no longer interested in the radical and, furthermore, it has what it needs to destroy him. The radical’s last efforts are to find the connection between society and death. Daniel tries to give a historical example but cuts his own words short and returns to the past.

Ascher took the children to the home of their father’s sister, Aunt Frieda. He wanted her to agree to take them but she was emphatic that she could not do it. She complained, whined, and cried. She felt like this was a massive burden and she knew nothing about taking care of children. Daniel found everything about her – her appearance, her smell, her home – loathsome. Frieda rambled about how Rochelle was responsible for ruining Paul. Ascher became furious at Frieda’s intransigence and chastised her that the children would have no one in the world and that they would be paupers if she did not do her part.

After his burst of anger, Ascher took Daniel into the kitchen; Susan was not invited but Ascher allowed her to stay after she stood there silently. He explained to the children that they were to live with their aunt. Upon Susan’s questioning, Ascher told them their mother was in jail. Daniel asked why they could not visit and Ascher explained that Paul and Rochelle felt it would be too difficult for the children to see their parents in their (separate) jails. Daniel thought of an old Russian story about a man whose death was described as “a progressive deterioration of possibilities”; movement, sight, consciousness faded away one by one. Daniel realized that “the punishment of prison inflicts the corruption of death on life.” Ascher comforted the children by telling them their parents were innocent and one day they would return and life would be normal. Daniel concludes this memory by thinking about his goodbye to Williams and how his tacit compromise with Aunt Frieda was that he would not go to school.

Daniel returns to the present day. He sits with Artie and Baby in their apartment after the others leave. Artie mentions that he and Baby met Susan and she brought up Daniel only once in the context of having a brother who was “politically underdeveloped.” Artie discusses how the old American Communists were complicit in the society they said they were trying to oppose. The American Communist party of the 1950s set the cause back and Daniel’s parents acted pathetically at their trial by playing along with the system and stressing their innocence. Artie insists the Isaacsons should have refused to partake in the charade. Artie proclaims that when he is finally noticed and put on trial for his radicalism, he would “turn that courtroom on” and get his message broadcast throughout the world.

Artie suggests visiting Susan but Daniel tells him it is not a good idea. While Baby makes dinner for the trio, Daniel admires her skinny sexiness and concludes that Artie was probably a “champion fucker.” Daniel inquires as to whether Susan mentioned the Foundation, and Artie said she had and he would have welcomed her money for the cause even if it had Ronald Reagan’s name on it. At the end of dinner, Artie asks Daniel how he had gotten Artie’s name and Daniel responds that Susan had written his name on a canister that contained a poster of their parents. Daniel realizes that when Susan said, “They’re still fucking us”, she meant everyone – including the Left. The Isaacsons were irrelevant to the New Left, betrayed as pathetic and part of the old guard. The night ends with the three smoking dope and singing songs on the apartment’s rooftop.

In September 1967, Daniel writes a letter to his father, Robert Lewin. Robert’s response, included in the narrative, explains that it seemed unlikely a court would terminate Susan’s trust while she was under psychiatric care. Daniel could apply for guardianship in his parents’ stead and could dispose of her trust in a way he deemed fit. Or, a third party could sue on her behalf and say her health could be improved if she received her share of the trust. This could occur if the money was given to the Isaacson Foundation. Robert concludes by saying he was intrigued by Daniel’s questions and said he had no idea who Artie Sternlicht was because Susan never mentioned him. Ending this part of the story, Daniel marvels at his father’s use of the pressure of fatherhood to try and stabilize Daniel with responsibility.

Daniel remembers seeing General Douglas Macarthur on television while his parents awaited their trial. He saw the accolades and the celebrations bestowed upon this arrogant and disobedient man and realized that Macarthur was actually the closest to ever overthrowing the United States government. While at Frieda’s, the indictments were handed down to the Isaacsons. There were eventually ten overt acts.

Daniel introduces into the narrative a letter from his mother written while she was in jail. It is sweet and simple – but Daniel is frightened by its impersonal tone. She tells Daniel that Ascher would be bringing gifts to him and Susan and that she loved him dearly. The children find the Erector set, drawing book and crayons they are given boring. Living at Aunt Frieda’s became increasingly difficult for Daniel. When he visited her at her candy shop, she would not allow him to touch anything. He eventually ended up stealing newspapers to read about his parents. He often found it difficult to breathe; when this occurred he “became maniacally active,” screaming, running, and moving about. He would spy on his aunt. In retrospect, Daniel did not find his aunt mean or neurotic or selfish or punitive. She was just a woman who was “too tried by the life she had to live.”

Frieda did not want to - and could not - keep the children, so they were moved to a children’s Shelter after five weeks. At this time the media, was depicting Paul Isaacson as a master spy and a ringleader. Daniel missed his father terribly and missed the truth he used to impart through his analyses of current events. Daniel began to wonder if his father was truly what the media said he was. But Ascher’s grim, beleaguered face brought the truth of injustice back to him. Truly, “they were fucking us.”


Daniel’s relationship with his wife and his comments about Baby, Sternlicht’s girlfriend, bring up questions about Daniel’s misogyny and, on a larger scale, what exactly E.L. Doctorow has to say about gender relations in his novels. Regarding the first point, it is clear that Daniel evinces a problem with the female sex in that he almost exclusively thinks of them in sexual terms tinged with a modicum of perversity (especially his wife). At the end of the novel, his encounter with Linda Mindish reinforces this facet of Daniel’s character (see page 275). His coldly calculating appraisal of the aesthetic merits of Baby and his derisive, punishing behavior toward his wife are indicative of a misogynistic perspective. This may derive from the thwarted relationship with his mother and the confusing sexual behavior of his sister. For more on the nature of the relationship between Daniel and Susan see later analyses, but for now it is important to note their difficult relationship through puberty and the intensity of their feelings for one another.

Marshall Bruce Gentry has written a well-regarded scholarly essay on the question of gender in the works of Philip Roth and Doctorow. He notes that in many of Doctorow’s novels, the author is very interested in conveying feminist ideas that are “symbolic of the wisdom, insight, the valuable mystery male characters should approach.” In The Book of Daniel several female characters are integral and provide guidance to Daniel and to the reader. However, in this work “we are asked to admire women for what Daniel is able to make of them rather than for what they are.” Rochelle and Susan and Phyllis are made real only through Daniel.

Perhaps somewhat disturbing, Gentry writes, is the fact that “we are left feeling that Doctorow’s women are typically silenced, controlled, nearly dead – only slightly removed from what is called the ‘starfish’ state of Susan Isaacson…” Phyllis in particular is almost a non-entity. Her sweet, angelic and childish nature is in striking contrast with that of Daniel’s. Baby is also a sweet flower child whose control of the domestic arena is in contrast to Artie Sternlicht’s transgressive and revolutionary rhetoric. Susan has been rendered mute and inert. Even Rochelle, who is arguably the novel’s most fully dimensional female character, is still unable to break out of the gendered constraints placed upon her. The media also relishes characterizing her as a harsh, shrill, uncaring woman - the opposite of what 1950s America thought a wife and mother should be.

This section is also notable for the continuing difficulties Daniel and Susan faced as children after their parents were arrested. Ascher tries to place them with their Aunt Frieda, whose reluctance to care for them reinforces their status as veritable orphans. Daniel has just a few images of this period of his life - Aunt Frieda’s hand putting money into her purse and the cab driver’s hat, mustache, and gold tooth. Aunt Frieda can only muster a half-hearted “I'll do my best and that’s all” when tasked with taking care of her nice and nephew. Daniel decides to emphasize this phrase for the narrative as a whole by repeating it, this time in all capital letters - I’LL DO MY BEST BUT THAT’S ALL. This is, after all, what Daniel is seeking to accomplish in his narrative; he wants to tell the story of his parents but it will not be perfect and he can only try to do his best.

Life with Aunt Frieda was miserable and thankfully short, and even though Daniel in adulthood was able to understand why she behaved the way she did, it was still a depressing and loveless environment that no doubt left an indelible impact upon the children. However, the Shelter, where they would be going next, was much worse. Daniel was also aware of the growing distance between himself and his mother as he read her strange-sounding letters and received her impersonal presents. He was able to read stories about his parents in the media and wonder if they were guilty of what they were accused of. The process by which the children and their parents are gradually becoming estranged began the day of their arrests and was irrevocably continuing.