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The Nervous Breakdown: "This novel is a rare hybrid of thriller and character study."

Date: May 19 2010

The relationship between film and fiction is a complex one. If you happen to be a fiction writer, sooner or later, civilians will ask you when you are going to pen a screenplay (which is a little like asking a painter when he or she plans to take up sculpture). Still, the common engine of novels and movies is the simple act of storytelling, and the best examples are a cross-pollination of the two.
Joel Stone's The Jerusalem File  (Europa Editions, 2009) seems to acknowledge this influence from the start: "Let's begin this way. Levin went to the movies." The Hollywood parallel is obvious: Levin, a bored retiree from the Israeli security service, agrees to tail the cheating wife of a university professor. And yet, despite the setup (old hat to anyone who's ever put in two hours at the Cineplex), this novel is a rare hybrid of thriller and character study.
The strength lies in the setting; the author stamps our passport to Israel by grounding us in the heart of Jerusalem. A love triangle that traffics in all the usual private-eye tropes takes on greater depth against its Middle Eastern backdrop, the dualism of the region coloring every detail. Levin, described as a "gray man…with a rainbow mind," notes the contrast built into daily life as he roams from Jewish West Jerusalem to Arab East Jerusalem ("It was a poignant world, when the smell around the bend could be uncollected garbage or sweetly aromatic lamb"), as he reflects on the nature of Jewish-Arab friendships ("The worse things got between their people, the better friends they felt they had to be"). Identities are divided: Levin's mother, despite being among the first lucky wave of post-WWII refugees from Europe, feels more Russian than Israeli. Likewise, Levin cannot escape being tugged in two directions as he daydreams of relocating to France.
Stone's carefully curated details never let us forget where we are: We're in the land of both the Tower of David Museum, set among ancient ruins, and the King David Hotel, where you can sip a martini in upscale surroundings. In a Jewish café, patrons sit at the back to protect themselves from potential bombs. When visiting Arab East Jerusalem, Levin takes an Arab taxi for added safety. The author successfully capitalizes on the heightened sensibilities of the area—even an encounter with an insurance salesman is tinged with menace.
As it turns out, our real destination isn't so much the conflicted Holy Land as it is Levin's conflicted soul: in retirement, he is slowly whittling down his attachments to his friends, his expat children, and his ex-wife; he keeps waiting for his pet fish to die; he manages the present by visiting the past ("In Jerusalem, the past was everywhere, but a museum walled it up for you, tied it down, so it wouldn't jump you by surprise"). With skill and dark humor, Stone imbues his protagonist with powers of observation that increase the more he tries to withdraw: "There they were, she and her baby—mother and child—the smallest of families."
The story moves at a good clip without sacrificing the "eye" in "private eye." Stone's descriptions are precise yet evocative: You can practically feel the sun as it beats down on cobbled alleyways, Dead Sea mud drying on your cheeks. The only weakness is the unsatisfying ending—this is not a typical whodunit—but after all, its lack of conclusion is in character for a part of the world that seems to knows no resolution.