Henry Schvey takes the title of his new memoir from William Blake’s poem “A Poison Tree,” in which the speaker’s wrath against his enemy grows into a tree whose poisoned apples, stolen by that same enemy, leave him dead and the speaker “glad.” It’s a curious, provocative source text for a story that begins with Schvey’s father’s mortal illness and loops back to young Henry’s tortured boyhood in a gilded cage on New York’s Upper West Side. The ostensible arc of the story takes us from a young child’s domination by a ruthless, unyielding father to a successful adult’s enlightenment and forgiveness. But the actual course of the narrative is less straightforward and, as with the poem, far more unexpected in its practical and moral outcomes.
Henry’s parents—the ambitious, abusive Norman Schvey and his wife Rita, an unstable mother and compulsive hoarder who lurks like a ghost through this father-son drama—were indeed privileged in the mid-century world of Jewish Manhattan, and Henry grows up amid the trappings of wealth and the profound neglect of adults who pursue their own manic obsessions at the expense of their children. Telling details abound: young Henry, alarmed by the sounds of his parents’ violent fights, has “my own peculiar ritual of getting myself to sleep when I am frightened: I recite every member of the New York Yankees’ twenty-five-man opening day roster, by number and position.” When Norman leaves, the reduced family—Rita, Henry, and a younger brother, Bobby—find themselves quickly evicted from their luxury apartment and forced to scramble for lodgings, but Rita never lets go of either her finery or her melodrama. When Henry finally takes it upon himself to clean their new apartment, he accidentally throws away a bag containing pieces of a broken antique chandelier, upon which Rita plunges into depression. Norman, meanwhile, tries and fails to kidnap his son away from the Horace Mann School, where the troubled Henry is failing, to boarding school in Vermont.
The teenaged Henry is starved not only for love but also for guidance, and he seems to find both in the charismatic, ascetic Adar. Having been introduced to Blake and other literary giants by a Svengali-like teacher at Horace Mann, Henry is already a loner and an aesthete when Adar introduces him to Ayn Rand and Nietzsche’s notion of the Overman. Together they get themselves fired from the camp and trudge the 60 miles back to New York City, sleeping in corn fields along the way.
From these psychological cyclones emerges the most original part of the memoir, a story not of Henry Schvey’s family or his father, but of a friendship that both saves and threatens to drown him. “I was in love,” Schvey writes, in a straightforward passage summing up his feelings for a young man from Brooklyn whom he meets as a fellow camp counselor in upstate New York. Although the contours of Henry’s and Adar’s relationship do not line up precisely with the story of A Poison Tree, it produces the most Blakeian set of images in the book. The teenaged Henry is starved not only for love but also for guidance, and he seems to find both in the charismatic, ascetic Adar. Having been introduced to Blake and other literary giants by a Svengali-like teacher at Horace Mann, Henry is already a loner and an aesthete when Adar introduces him to Ayn Rand and Nietzsche’s notion of the Overman. Together they get themselves fired from the camp and trudge the 60 miles back to New York City, sleeping in corn fields along the way. Stirred by Adar’s speeches about absolute freedom and the purifying of the body, Henry seems as transported—and as vulnerable—as any character in Blake. Though the relationship never takes on the sexual nature of which Henry’s father, infuriated by his son’s attachment to a boy from Brooklyn, suspects it, passion is nonetheless its ruling force. The reader suspects it will not end well.
And yet the waning of Adar’s influence, when it comes, proves surprising. We have begun to see him as a Svengali, feeding his ego by urging Henry to “purify [himself] of other people,” “to learn to levitate the body.” But Henry’s visit to Adar’s family home in Canarsie, Brooklyn, is the most vivid, revealing scene in the book. There, after “follow[ing] a line of green ooze along the wall of his floor,” he meets “an old man in a sleeveless undershirt” and a woman whose “underarms were full of dense, black hair.” These are Adar’s elderly, Yiddish-speaking, working-class parents, and to Henry they are horrifying. He cannot reconcile “the juxtaposition between the esteem with which I held him, and the commonness of his real life.” At this point, Schvey refers directly to the Blake verses, noting that “whatever … had come between us, it had borne fruit like the poison in Blake’s poem.” But more to the point, we suddenly find that the powerful individual in this relationship is not Adar, but Henry. Henry can remove himself from Adar’s life; can go halfway across the country to college; can refuse to answer phone calls or letters; can resume a life of eating meat and having sex with women. The intimate friendship with Adar becomes, for him, a phase.
And yet it is a phase—or perhaps his abandonment of Adar is an action—that sends Henry into his own tailspin, connected to his father’s abusiveness and his mother’s craziness mostly by the fact that his dysfunctional home life had put him in Adar’s way in the first place. He flees New York to seek out his grandparents in northern New Hampshire; he barely graduates from high school; he struggles in his first semester at college, where he wears dark jackets and ties in sharp contrast to the mid-60s explosion of frayed jeans and tie-dyed T-shirts; he burns his draft notice and reads Dostoevsky; he falls into an intermittent sexual liaison with his married composition instructor, never even learning her last name. Finally, he agrees to meet Adar in Chicago, where he finds his former friend a broken, bitter “frail old man,” whom he will never see thereafter.
In many ways, Henry himself is the guilty protagonist of Blake’s poem, having watered his poison tree not with wrath so much as with an attachment that proves, in the end, to be selfish, as so many of our young gestures necessarily are.
Schvey’s recounting of this adolescent friendship eloquently captures the sort of deep, narrow passion that can overtake a sensitive soul; that can, in his words, threaten to swallow one’s personality before it is fully developed. In many ways, Henry himself is the guilty protagonist of Blake’s poem, having watered his poison tree not with wrath so much as with an attachment that proves, in the end, to be selfish, as so many of our young gestures necessarily are. “The illness,” he writes of this period of his life, “was adolescence. And although I knew only too well I was not to be mistaken for an adult, something in my body told me that I had weathered a storm and survived.”
Norman Schvey’s personality does not improve with age, nor does Rita manage to get full control of her life. It may be that the narration of his family life, for Henry Schvey, is akin to the first action of the Blake poem: “I told my wrath, my wrath did end.” That is, he grows free of his father’s domination and the need to repair his mother’s broken life; he sets himself on a course to achieve success as a professor in the Netherlands and eventually chair of the Performing Arts Department at Washington University. And he writes this honest, generous memoir.
Flashes of finely wrought humor illuminate what might have been a grim narrative. Cameos of Norman Schvey’s brother Malcolm feature homophobia (“What I’m asking you, y’understand, is this: did the two of you engage in activities which in any way might be construed as illegal?”) and race-war anxieties:
“When the race riots start, banks are always the first things to do. Gold holds its value, and Johannesburg is the only place left that’s safe.”
“Don’t they practice apartheid there?”
More endearing are Henry’s grandparents, who remind him continually of his father’s lost goodness. Even as they bicker between themselves, they exhibit a love for their grandson along with a Jewishness that approaches caricature (“You think the Jews survived Dachau and godknowswhere so you could ride the Greyhound to New Hampshire in the middle of the night?”). And Henry’s eventual, lifelong romance with Patty Cohn, the smart, solid girl from St. Louis whose supposed provincialism offends both his parents, dovetails heartwarmingly with his emergence into a healthy adulthood. On the day he first sets aside his Adar-inspired vegetarianism to taste Patty’s matzo ball soup, he writes, “I began constructing an alternate family for myself.”
Henry’s cruel, necessary excision of Adar from his life feels like a kind of surgery performed midway through the memoir, whose scar tissue lingers as a reminder of how close any life can come to early tragedy.
But it is the turning-point relationship with Adar that forms the beating heart of this memoir. He is a classic anchorite, reminiscent of Sue Bridehead in Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure (1895), whose dangerous charisma seems based in his self-invention and disinterest in his acolytes. In fact, he is even more desperate than Henry to escape his circumstances. Henry’s cruel, necessary excision of Adar from his life feels like a kind of surgery performed midway through the memoir, whose scar tissue lingers as a reminder of how close any life can come to early tragedy.
Returning to the deathbed scene with which he began, Henry Schvey concludes his story not with words of reconciliation and wisdom, but with questions. Should his parents have stayed together? Does his mother, now working toward her doctorate, feel triumph over her “antagonist,” her ex-husband? Does his own daughter know how much he loves her, how differently he feels toward her than his father ever did toward him? When he rids himself of a series of photographs revealing a twisted, sadistic side of his father that feels sadly familiar, he does not set himself free. He acknowledges simply that he is free, not because he has escaped his past, but because he has captured it.