After a short note to the reader, Daniel returns to Memorial Day of 1967 as he and his wife and child drive Susan’s Volvo to the Lewins’ house. The car does not handle well when the sky darkens quickly and brings a heavy rain. Daniel enjoys the rain because he feels like it shelters them, encapsulating them. Phyllis says she loves Susan and hopes that perhaps she could come live with them in New York.
Daniel met Phyllis at Central Park’s Human Be-In. She was there with another friend who Daniel deems much sillier; Phyllis was very spiritual, soft, and solemn. Her young and wealthy parents lived in New York. Daniel remembers he made them nervous and their son Scott hated him when they met.
Phyllis leans behind the front seat to try and change Paul in the back. Daniel accelerates and passes multiple cars as the rain comes down in sheets. Daniel tells Phyllis to take her pants off. She laughs, thinking he is joking, but she realizes he is serious. She becomes uncomfortable and refuses. She notices that he is driving faster and implores him to slow down and stop being ridiculous. She insists that as soon as they reached Brookline, she would do what he wanted. She tells him that she knows she bores him, that he and his family “were all such big deals. You’re all such big deals of suffering.”
Daniel drives even faster and the visibility through the windshield diminishes almost completely. Phyllis screams that he is going to kill them but Daniel responds that he would only slow down if she complied by taking off her pants. She finally agrees and then bends over on the seat with her rear end facing Daniel. She weeps, imploring Daniel not to hurt her. Daniel touches her. Leaving the scene, Daniel addresses the reader directly, alluding to an imprint of a cigarette lighter he made on Phyllis’ rear end - “Who are you anyway? Who told you you could read this? Is nothing sacred?” Daniel references a surrealist film by Buñuel and Dali that similarly demonstrates that what is left to the imagination could be worse than what is actually shown.
Daniel’s narrative then swings back to his childhood. He explains how, in the years following their parents’ execution and their adoption by the Lewins, he and Susan never talked of Paul and Rochelle Isaacson. As he and Susan grew older, the natural impatience and dislike for one’s family members grew stronger and they got in terrible fights. They did, however, get embarrassingly used to their new, comfortable middle class lifestyle living with the Lewins; everything was new, there was a routine, their clothes fit, they always had food. Daniel realized “it was all right every now and then again to enjoy yourself and have a good time.”
In order to live in this middle class comfort, they had to ask themselves if living in reverence to the people they lost were really important. For a few years, it wasn’t. This was what the world wanted of them - to forget their pasts. Of course, this was impossible in the long-term because no matter what, Daniel and Susan were still the Isaacson children. Daniel and Susan eventually stopped talking when he went off to Cambridge at eighteen. When reality – his childhood and his parents – became unavoidable again, he tried to contact Susan and found her brash, loud, bright, and conspicuous. She showed him her body in underwear and spoke of men she had slept with. Daniel mourned his lost little sister and always told himself, “we should have talked, we always should have talked.”
The next section of the narrative is entitled “Bintel Brief.” Structured as a letter to the editor from his grandmother, the narrative describes Daniel’s grandmother’s life from her perspective.
Written in first-person, Daniel’s grandmother describes herself as a Jewish woman who escaped persecution and near-death in Europe by sailing to America when she was a young girl. Arriving in New York, she was frightened and stirred by an old woman who was not allowed to enter the country and had to remain in the Immigration office. She says goodbye to the old woman as she leaves, “my own good fortune being my health and my youth and my strength.”
She met a young boy whom she married right away. This hardworking couple lived in the chaotic, stinking, impoverished Lower East Side and tried to make a life and home for themselves. One of her children was crushed by a wagon. After paying for their passage to America, she lost her two younger sisters in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire. Her second son died of the 1918 flu epidemic. One day she realized that she and her husband were “my mother and father, and life, terrible life, has nailed us to the ground.” There were some sweet moments, however, and the only thing she could not stand was a child who looked at their first-generation parents and disavowed and blasphemed their traditions and ways in order to embrace a modern American life. When her husband died, she was alone with her only daughter, Rachele.
Daniel turns the narrative back to his own story. In writing this section, he tried not to offend his strange little grandma, who often gave him pennies and told him he was a good boy. His grandma had fits of madness where she ran off, cursed in Yiddish, or told people the family secrets. Her only friend was a Mrs. Bittleman, a neighbor whose son had been killed in the war. Sometimes the police had to bring his grandma home to the family after she escaped.
This section features one of the most disturbing exemplars of Daniel’s perversity and sadism. His treatment of his wife in the car is indicative of his malicious love of power over her; he frequently mentions that she is of a lower class than him and assumes that she only married him for the notoriety associated with his family. For his part, he believes he married her because she has “become a sex martyr” (6). Daniel uses sex to act out his inner turmoil; he relishes the control over Phyllis because he lacks control in his own life. Literary scholar Robert Detweiler asserts: “The capacity of [Daniel’s] ‘child-bride’ to suffer humiliation and pain on his behalf excites his perversity, and this unsettling motivation may be the precarious basis of their relationship.”
Daniel’s manipulation of his wife is also mirrored in the manipulation he exerts over the narrative. (Girardin) Temporal, perspective and style shifts occur frequently and often when the content of one section is painful or traumatic. Doctorow expresses Daniel’s discomfort through these shifts. In describing the abuse of his wife, Daniel quickly moves to a direct address of the reader to both defend his actions and distract from their intensity by discussing an equally shocking experimental film, Un Chien Andalou. Daniel attempts to influence his readers while “looking for the truthful perspective, the adequate distance between himself and the world” (Girardin 79).
Daniel diverts stylistically in the “letter to the editor” which details his grandmother’s immigrant experience in her “first-person.” Daniel invents the letter in order to tell his grandmother’s story in her own voice. Adopting her voice lends credence and realism to the events. It also helps to paint the emotional toll of the tragedies suffered by his grandmother. These insights into her future madness and relationship with Daniel’s mother set up Daniel’s own childhood memories. Daniel yearns to understand what happened to his parents. Telling his family’s story in their own voices is an attempt to get closer to the truth – both historical and emotional. Doctorow attempts a version of truth in fiction as well, by “juxtaposing images from different times in a way that surprises and compels attention, for creating and re-creating American myths through his use of familiar images of our shared past, and for describing events of personal lives from a perspective that calls attention to social forces” (Rodgers 94).
Daniel’s grandmother’s personal narrative is emblematic of the experience of many Eastern European immigrants upon arrival in America and during their early years in their new country. Daniel’s grandmother left her homeland, family, and history to start a new, better life, but this life was filled with tragedy and loss. Her mental state was affected by the deleterious conditions of her life. Her madness causes young Daniel to shy away from her in embarrassment. Her mental illness is mirrored in the behavior of Susan and, to some degree, Daniel. This familial madness is taken up briefly in the next section as well, where Daniel describes a medical textbook with depictions of the three women – his grandmother, mother, and sister –with a red line through their hearts connecting them together and “the progression of madness inherited through the heart” (71).
It becomes clear that the problems with the immigrant/outsider/other do not end with Daniel’s grandmother, however; they are manifested more conspicuously in the treatment of the Isaacsons during their trial later in the novel. Their Jewishness, while never explicitly mentioned during the trial, leads to their depiction as strangers or foreigners. Like Sacco and Vanzetti before them, the Isaacsons and their taint of un-Americanism are easy stand-ins for “the Soviet Union…for the condition of the world today” (205), as Ascher puts it.
Both Daniel and his mother disappoint the old woman. In “Bintel Brief”, she “writes” that the one thing she cannot forgive is “the thankless child who becomes ashamed of his mother and father, and forsakes their ways, and blasphemes and violates the Sabbath to be a modern American.” (66) Rachele grows up to call herself Rochelle – Daniel’s mother. Her name change was a source of ire for her mother, as were many of her life choices. Daniel also vacillates between his two names, which carry with them associations and allusions. He is Daniel Lewin when he wants to hide or repress his past, and he is Daniel Isaacson when he “confesses and acclaims, with a mixture of apology and pride” that he is the son of those infamous Isaacsons executed by the State.