by Joshua Braff
Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
The inner workings of Hasidic Judaism and the evolution of modern porn make for an unlikely cultural juxtaposition; yet it is through the exploration of their inevitable clashes and unexpected commonalities that Joshua Braff approaches his compelling and occasionally surprising new coming-of-age story. Peep Show, Braff’s sophomore novel after 2004’s The Unthinkable Thoughts of Jacob Green, is an accomplished, thematically complex but ultimately very relatable piece of writing, a book that convinces us of Braff’s talent and ingenuity while simultaneously inspiring the hope that he will eventually graduate from the workings of angst-ridden male minds and move on to more challenging territory.
It’s 1975, suburban New Jersey, and David – Braff’s Jewish teenage male protagonist — is doing his damnedest to live like an average high school kid: dealing with school, dabbling in photography, daydreaming about women and deciding what to do with himself after graduation. Unfortunately, the power struggle between his burlesque dancer-turned-devout Hasid mother and his estranged, fiercely proud, porn theater-owning father quickly obliterate any chance that either David or his younger sister Debra ever had of enjoying a normal adolescence. Determined to salvage his individuality from the encroaching grasp of his mother’s religious makeover, David defies her one time too many and ends up cut off, cast out and working for his father at Time Square’s Imperial Burlesque Theater.
It’s no stretch to assume that, for almost any other teenage boy, life at the peep show in lieu of college or all-consuming familial religious practices would be a dream come true; and when Braff launches David into a career photographing topless cuties and amateur porn stars, it’s tempting to fear the worst – a kind of Judy Blume-for-boys sexual awakening — for the novel’s direction thereafter. But unexpectedly, as David learns more about the warring worlds vying to shape his morality and command his loyalty, as he snaps revealing narrative and photographic candids — of the gender-segregating screens in Hasidic homes, his mother’s history in the burlesque business, the gender-segregating peep screens in the theater, his father’s moral convictions in the face of a swiftly devolving sex industry – he evolves beyond the conventional scope of adolescence and approaches an adult understanding, a burgeoning manhood that embraces the sum of his inherited and self-determined parts.
Joshua Braff handles the more predictable manifestations of David’s evolution with graceful prose that, when combined with an impressive attention to delicate, unusual and obvious details alike, lend Peep Show an authentic palpability that engages and educates in occasionally surprising ways. At times all too obvious, at others disarmingly fresh, Peep Show may, with a bit of luck, prove the predecessor to many more inventive novels with unlikely subjects and diverse narrative perspective; and if Braff can master the internal dialogue and vacillating desires of, say, Peep Show’s aging starlet-turned-stripper in the context of another, equally compelling story, he might end up quite the literary force to be reckoned with.