The Book of Daniel

The Book of Daniel Summary and Analysis of “The Isaacsons are arrested for conspiring to give the secret of television to the Soviet Union…” – "Sternlicht Rapping"


Ascher came into the Isaacsons’ life. While perhaps not their first choice of counsel, Ascher was a “Jewish gentleman”- kind, honorable, religious. It was not a good time for lawyers to take left-wing cases but Ascher took on the Isaacsons’ because he understood that their communism was “pathetic and gutsy at the same time.” He was tactless but completely possessed with integrity. He was not political but abhorred witch-hunting and irrationality.

Daniel recalls how, after his father was arrested, things were very difficult for their family. Money was scarce, the neighbors ignored them, and the Isaacson radio store was shut down. Mindish and Paul were indicted for violating the Espionage Act; Paul could not afford to pay the exorbitantly high bail and was thus stuck in jail. Rochelle, Daniel, and Susan’s lives were shrinking, but in another way they were expanding – Rochelle’s picture was in the newspaper, along with headlines about Paul. Daniel often saw his father’s face in news broadcasts.

After the arrest, the Isaacsons’ family friends came to visit. Ben Cohen promised to help any way he could and others bring food and a few dollars. Someone tells them that the Isaacsons were written out of the Communist Party because it did not want to be associated with anyone violating the Espionage Act. Daniel asked his mother if his father was guilty, and she replied that he was not guilty of what he was charged with but “really guilty of wanting a new world of socialism without want.” Daniel started to cry. He said that he was afraid of Mindish but his mother responded fiercely that he should not fear him; Mindish was to be pitied and would go to hell for his treachery.

At school, Daniel was looked upon with suspicion and after a few days of being forced to sit alone in the library, he was moved to the desk furthest away from his classmates. His peers asked questions about his father and told him frightening tales of what happened to people in prison. His mother explained that prison was not as bad as he heard, which comforted him somewhat.

One morning his mother told him she had to go downtown to answer questions for the Grand Jury and that he and Susan would have to stay with their neighbor Mrs. Bittleman. His mother never returned. The darkness of evening descended and Daniel and Susan waited alone in their own home. Williams came into the kitchen at one point and asked the children if they knew. When Daniel asked “what?”, Williams responded, “Dear Jesus. It’s on the radio.” Rochelle had been arrested too.

Daniel breaks into the narrative of his mother’s arrest with pieces from his dissertation. He describes two different forms of punishment: knouting and burning at the stake. Knouting was used in Czarist Russia only on serfs who were accused of committing capital offenses. Likewise, burning at the stake was reserved for offenders from the lower classes. Upper-class criminals rarely received such humiliating sentences but, in extreme cases where burning at the stake was deemed necessary, the executed were first stripped of their status. Daniel writes that the “basis of all class distinctions is corporal punishment.”

Daniel’s narrative returns to contemporary 1967 and he describes a day at the Riverside Park with Phyllis and baby Paul. They were getting along well at that time and Daniel knew observers would view them as a perfect young couple in love. To amuse Paul, Daniel tosses him in the air and catches him. He begins to throw Paul higher and higher until the boy becomes frightened. Phyllis screams at Daniel and he enjoys her fear. Finally, he stops and Phyllis grabs their son. Daniel walks off, leaving his family in the park.

Daniel’s narrative continues in the present, although it is unclear whether he describes the same day as the incident in the park or another day in 1967. He takes the subway to Union Square. This dirty and derelict part of the city is contrasted with Avenue B and Tompkins Square Park, the vibrant hub of the radical youth movement. The park is filled with life that day - people playing games, dogs running free, old ladies talking, young people enacting the ritual of flirtation, rock music playing from a thousand radios.

Daniel ends up in the apartment of Artie Sternlicht, a hyper, vivid and charismatic radical. Joining Daniel and Artie are Artie’s girlfriend, a girl reporter from Cosmopolitan, and her photographer. Artie discusses his life, including how he refused a blood test from the “pig” police. He talked about how the “hippie thing turned bad” and how all the freaks needed to get together to do something. According the Artie, the peace movement was part of the war - it was a useless, middle class phenomenon. The photographer shoots photos of him up against the wall doing grotesque, Christ-like poses. On the wall of the apartment hangs a massive collage of pictures, movie stills, newspaper clippings, and posters assembled by Artie’s girlfriend, Baby. It included images of Marilyn Monroe, Paul Robeson, Susan B. Anthony, Mickey Mouse, FDR, book covers, chain gangs, Calvin Coolidge, and many more cultural, historical, and social images. The photographer asked what it was called and Artie, Baby, and their friends all chime, “EVERYTHING THAT CAME BEFORE IS ALL THE SAME.”


Daniel’s perversity and cruelty were noted previously, but they manifest themselves clearly again in this section. Almost every critic who writes on The Book of Daniel takes up the subject of the main character’s sadism. A few have labeled him repulsive while John Parks compared him to Hamlet in his propensity to take his rage out upon the women he loves rather than the regime itself. Another critic, Robert Forrey, believed his disintegrated narrative was the result of the ongoing disintegration of his ego. When Doctorow was asked about Daniel’s putative sadism, he responded with: “But I see his ‘sadism,’ as you call it, in a slightly different way. I see the scene where he abuses his wife, for instance, as the same kind of scene where he throws his son up in the air. The act has existential dimensions. Daniel is overtuned to the world. He doesn’t miss a thing. He’s a hero – or a criminal – of perception…[who survives in a] cold and frightening embrace with the truth.” Daniel throws his son up in the air, in part, to subvert the expectations of those around him. When observers look at him and Phyllis as “perfect” couple, Daniel’s instinct is to do something horrid. He can only be reactive and not active.

Robert Detweiler discusses Daniel’s anal fixation and its relation to his adult sadism. Daniel “conjoins voyeurism, the sadistic infliction of pain, anality, and a sense of the holy” when he burns his wife’s rear end with the cigarette lighter. When he throws his son in the air he delights in the child’s fear and his wife’s horror. His acting out in this manner is a reflection of just how out of control his life is. Nothing is sacred to Daniel because he is so scarred by the trauma of his childhood. His impulse towards recklessness and its concomitant pleasure in reasserting control demonstrates his particular response to his childhood.

In this section Artie Sternlicht, the sixties revolutionary, is introduced. Sternlicht rejects the Old Left and the ideals the Isaacsons stood for. He is the “left countercultural apostle of spontaneous revolt via guerilla theater that will ‘bring down the state with images’ on television,” as scholar T.V. Reed writes. He is romantic like Paul Isaacson but the new technology links him with “the agenda of the state.” While Sternlicht believes he is going to be a part of this spontaneous revolution that will be totally new and totally contemporary, he is actually “in the hands of the cultural apparatus that was rapidly turning the democratic revolts of the sixties into just another television show.” Real-life sixties radicals like Abbie Hoffman saw their “Yippie” street theater political performances subsumed and tamed by the media apparatus. In the scene in the Artie’s apartment, he is photographed by a member of the mainstream media. The shocking poses he strikes will lose their intended effect in the pages of Cosmopolitan.

Sternlicht’s collage “EVERYTHING THAT CAME BEFORE IS ALL THE SAME” is not as revolutionary as he believed it to be, for “the piece is emblematic of Sternlicht’s complicity in the erasure of history necessary to the emerging society of the spectacle he thinks he is overthrowing.” The major problem with Sternlicht is that he underestimates the repressive power of the government and overestimates the individual’s revolutionary zeal and commitment. Sternlicht’s own illness in the next section reveals the frailty of his body and his ideals. It is Daniel, whose parents were executed by the state and who has personally been rendered impotent by the act, who truly sees the possibilities and limitations of the Old and New Left for what they really are. Susan’s phrase “They’re still fucking us” is about the New Left and Daniel realizes that (more about the Old vs. New Left will be covered in later analyses).

A final comment on this section is on the wrenching scenes of Paul and Rochelle Isaacson being arrested. Paul’s arrest takes place in front of his children one chilly morning at their home. The arrest culminates in Daniel’s room being searched and his things being overturned or confiscated. The haphazard mess made in Daniel’s room symbolizes the mess made in his life after that day. Rochelle’s arrest is unseen by Daniel and is perhaps more unsettling for that reason. She simply does not come home one day and the children are left sitting in their kitchen, unaware of the event until Williams comes in and tells them it is on the radio. The effect upon Daniel and Susan of watching their father get arrested and learning their mother was arrested after she had promised to come home is incalculable and factors into the discussion about the children’s response to the traumas of their early lives.