The Parting Gift by Evan Fallenberg
Other Press, 2018
256 pages / Other
Evan Fallenberg’s The Parting Gift is a slim, riveting novel that takes us deep into the classic themes of love, attraction, jealousy, and revenge. Though it has at its heart the story of a relationship between two men, the story succeeds in shedding a fascinating light on the meaning of gender, both male and female, and the way in which sexuality lies deep in the subconscious, shaping and dictating what it is that we want and need from our lovers.
It’s a sharp, short, streamlined text, compelling and vividly readable from the first sentence, and falling easily into that category of books which are “difficult to put down.”
The narrator, a young American who remains unnamed through the book, has shown up at the home of Adam, an old friend from college. Adam, together with his girlfriend Beth, have offered him their hospitality without asking for a word of explanation, and now, several months later, as he is about to move on, he bestows on Adam the “parting gift” of a letter detailing the circumstances that led him to his door.
The story that unfolds begins simply. The narrator has arrived in Israel after abruptly leaving his graduate studies program under “unpleasant circumstances, a few months shy of graduation.” Because his mother is an Israeli expat, he is immediately eligible for citizenship. He is given temporary housing in Tel Aviv, enjoys the charms of the city, and signs up for a Hebrew course. In the course of a weekend car trip with some fellow students, they stop at a “The Spice Guy”, a herb and spice shop run out of a chicken coop overlooking the sea. It is here that he first sets eyes on Uzi, the shop’s owner, as he’s repairing a lawn mower:
He grabbed a T-shirt and as he turned to face me he took off his hat and mopped the top of his bald head. The hair under his arm was light, almost blond, and I could smell him. Oh yes, I could definitely smell him and everything that eventually happened may have started at that particular moment, with the scent of him rolling off in waves and wafting under my untested nose.
The narrator doesn’t return to Tel Aviv with his friends. Enthralled by Uzi’s physical presence, he remains in the shop and with scarcely a word exchanged between the two, seduces him:
You must read on, Adam, there can be no turning back. And I must describe for you, at this important moment in my story, quite precisely what transpired and how it transpired, and, if I am able, what it all meant…you must assemble these facts that I am handing you like tools in a toolbox, you must lay them in their proper places, line them up until they are all there and you can make sense of them.
This passage is in fact an invitation to the reader as well. It should be said that the sexual encounters in the book, all of which solely involve men, are vivid, graphic, and replete with physical and emotional detail. Though they may at first seem gratuitous, these descriptions are not there for titillation or voyeuristic purposes (though, for some readers, they might be that as well). They serve as a trajectory into the beating heart of the book, which delves into questions of male entitlement, the dynamics of sex, and how the two are related.
The narrator moves into Uzi’s home in an agricultural village near the sea and slips fluidly into the roles of lover, companion, and cook. He builds relationships with Uzi’s ex-wife, Nina, who lives next store, and his children, particularly his troubled 18 year old daughter. He implements marketing programs for Uzi’s business, turning him into a minor celebrity and making the shop into an entrepreneurial success.
All seems to be going well, until during a business trip to an Arab spice dealer, Uzi arranges for the man’s son, Ibrahim, to move into a room behind the shop and work as an apprentice. Ibrahim is young, sophisticated and attractive, and it soon appears that Uzi has taken him as a lover. It is at this point that the narrator begins to consider the dynamics of his relationship with Uzi. He already feels that something is lacking. When, during one of their conversations, Nina describes Uzi as “entitled”, he is startled to find himself in absolute agreement. Reconsidering their relationship, he realizes:
His sense of entitlement would affect everything between us, always, because the only way to live with a person of such inflated entitlement was to deny entitlement in oneself entirely. And what was the opposite of entitlement? Disenfranchisement was the first word that came to mind, and it clearly fit me like a tailored suit.
If this sounds like a woman complaining about her boyfriend or husband, it’s because this is precisely the issue that Fallenberg is raising. But he doesn’t stop there, because in his eyes, the dynamic is even more primal – related to the conceits of the sexual act itself. Sex, by definition, involves one partner penetrating and the other being penetrated. In a homosexual relationship partners may exchange these roles. Yet Uzi refuses the “passive” position and this refusal gives rise to an interesting sort of empathy with women’s sexuality:
…one person penetrates another’s body, one person inserts a piece of himself, quite intrusively, into someone else, even leaves a part of himself there as a reminder; a marking of territory the spoils of war…women do this day in day out. It’s incredible. And like me, I’m sure some of them want it some of the time, but eventually, not much more than that.
Yet even as the narrator complains about Uzi’s self-centered, ego-centric behavior, these are qualities that he is not free of himself. Filled with resentment and jealousy, he meticulously plots his revenge, with not a thought for effect his actions will have on his victims. Male entitlement indeed.
Set in Israel, against the backdrop of the sights, smells, taste, and histories of the people who inhabit it, this is a book that shows Israelis and Arabs in a fresh, unsentimental light. The politics of the region, so complex and intense that they could overtake the narrative, provide a subtle undertone, a background against which the actual, flesh and blood story plays out.
The book has evoked favorable comparisons with Lolita and Rebecca in that we find ourselves identifying, even as we wince, with a skewed view of the world. The prose, like the narrator, is pointed, unforgiving, tight, single-minded. This slim volume could be read in one long, intriguing sitting, leaving the reader to come away with fresh perspectives on the drama of sexual politics.
Janice Weizman is the author of the historical novel, The Wayward Moon. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in World Literature Today, Lilith, Queen Mob’s Tea House, Consequence, and other places. She serves as a Fiction editor for The Ilanot Review.