Snowball, Dragonfly, Jew is Stuart Ross's first novel and seems tame compared to his previous book, the short story collection Buying Cigarettes for the Dog. That's not to suggest that Ross hasn't produced a moving and funny novel, but that he's not extending his talents to their limit.
The novel explores how the historical trauma of the Holocaust has destroyed the normal processes of cultural memory. Ben, a Jewish performance artist now entering his forties, reflects on life — but while doing so, he snags on a childhood memory, his terminally-ill mother's assassination of a neo-Nazi leader.
As Ben circles this memory, attempting to square it with other memories of his mother and life, Ross presents his narrative in short, fragmentary chapters that often read like mini-stories, whose interconnections are more thematic than plot-based.
The assassination itself opens the novel. Unlike other poets-turned-novelists, Ross understands the power of both poetry and clear prose. The first sentence of the novel is a good example: “To its surprise, the bullet sailed out of the gun my mother clutched unsteadily in both hands, and a moment later the big man's yellow hard hat leapt from his thick head, into the air.”
It's the bullet that's surprised, the hard hat that leaps — the objects themselves, the whole world of the memory, taking on life. The child's perspective is tilted in, rather than poured, with “the big man” — Ross resists the temptation to revel in the child's perspective through clunky, condescending stream-of-consciousness, bane of lesser authors.
When Ross does inhabit the child's voice more fully, he manages it well. Pontificating upon a catfish, the child Ben notes its silent swishes through an ice-cream container: “That's what made it like a cat — the silence and the whiskers.” A simple, stunning image with poetic suggestiveness, followed by a clever, jokey tag: “Also because it was called a ‘catfish.'”
Ross isn't always a jokester, and can marry absurd humour and sad observation. When Ben considers the simple, stupid, melodramatic deaths in war movies, he thinks: “Sometimes you wouldn't see any kind of wound at all, and it was like the guy died just because he was too tired to keep fighting. I didn't realize then that that was why most people died.”
This is a sudden, surprising shift after pages making fun of these movie deaths, but it's not just a superficial tag — it's the reason those pages appear.
At stake in Ross's story is not solving the mystery of whether or why Ben's mother killed the neo-Nazi, but how the trauma of the Holocaust is played out in the lives of those with generational ties to the tragedy.
Often, Ben returns to a memory not his own, but his mother's — having snowballs hurled at her as a child because she was Jewish. “What were those snowballs thinking as they flew towards her little curly-haired Jewish head? Was this why their flakes had floated down from the sky like ashes?”
Ross's writing compels, but his story doesn't cohere or build, because the novel lacks shape. Its formal approach — a story told in disjointed fragments of memory and dream — is unmotivated.
Ben has a brother, Jake, who is unable to hold onto or summon his memories due to a medical condition — instead, they surface with seeming randomness.
Why isn't Jake the main character, the one circling these memories? Suffering their impositions, from his inability to truly recall, manage, or lose them? This shift would give Ross's structure more meaning and allow him to pace Snowball, Dragonfly, Jew to the rhythms of Jake's condition.