The Miracle Letters of T. Rimberg by Geoff Herbach, Three Rivers Press
Geoff Herbach’s first novel, The Miracle Letters of T. Rimberg, tells the story of a middle-aged American man, Theodore Rimberg, whose plan to commit suicide propels him into a year-long journey from the Midwest to Europe to Green Bay, Wisconsin. This trek is replete with quixotic adventures in places like a Polish prison, Amsterdam’s Red Light District, and the Green Bay Packers football stadium. T.’s story is told in his own, first-person voice presented by Herbach in a series of letters, journal entries, and interview transcripts. And what a voice it is: bluntly lyrical, whiny and philosophical, geekily hip, and sometimes wise even in its histrionic self-absorption. It is Theodore Rimberg’s voice that makes this novel sing.
T.’s many letters are arias of mixed feelings, mixed morals, blame, loathing, and self-discovery making dramatic mental leaps: “Shrooms taste terrible,” T. writes from a bar in Amsterdam, “but okay with a Coke. I love Coke. It is a perfectly refreshing drink, except for what cane worker in Haiti paid with his back for this sugar?” They try to make amends to people in his past, “Dear Sherri Staltz…I’m sorry I repeatedly touched your knees and legs backstage during the high school production of Our Town,” and people he has never met, “Dear Anne Frank…I wish you were an old lady in your adopted home, Queens, New York, an anonymous old lady, sweet and fat, living among Koreans and Russians, all displaced, but alive.” They rail against the likes of Bill Clinton and Madonna “in 1986 you caused me to have an erection that lasted for eight days…Look at the horrifying little pop singers you helped spawn. Their music is all about vibrating sex organs;” and are usually punctuated by the announcement of his impending suicide: “Just thought you should know I’m going to kill myself.”
In between letters, Herbach weaves in a year of T.’s journal entries and a series of interviews between T. and a sympathetic Green Bay priest who believes T. to be a “perfect vehicle for God’s work.” These passages told in T.’s singular voice help clarify the narrative alluded to in his letters, the story of a suicide-obsessed guy who receives a fortune from a father who abandoned him when he was a boy. This unexpected inheritance prompts T. to quit his hated job, leave Minneapolis where his ex-wife, children, and ex-girlfriend refuse to see him, and go searching for his dad, a Jewish Holocaust survivor who may live somewhere between Antwerp, Belgium and Warsaw, Poland. T. leaves for Europe intent on finding his dad and committing suicide.
The Miracle Letters of T. Rimberg is a classic epistolary novel and a story of the American Jewish immigrant experience with a nod to Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything Is Illuminated and Saul Bellow’s Herzog. All three novels use letters to reveal the inner lives of their male characters and, like Bellow’s Herzog, T. is a Midwestern Jew who writes letters to everyone who ever influenced him in an effort to make sense of his mid-life crisis. Like Safran Foer’s Jonathan, T. searches for self-understanding by looking to his family’s Eastern European Jewish past. “History shapes people,” says T. “I had no history…[Dad] hid everything and disappeared. But secrets just leave this empty space.” What sets T. Rimberg apart from these other American Jewish male characters is his voice, a Gen-X mix of popular culture, higher-learning, and passionate emotion.
“Dear David,” writes T. to his brother, “What better way to celebrate the life and works of Karl Marx than to get totally naked in a staff meeting?” And in a letter to Aunt Jemima:
…I know from listening to NPR one morning a few years ago that you are named after one of the biblical Job’s daughters. Poor, misused Aunt Jemima.
Job was Jewish.
I am real and I see Nazis and I’m in a city that was decimated by Nazis and my dad was born here and he was a Jew. That was bad. So don’t complain! You’re a racist trademark with a hanky on your head. Still I always loved you and your friend Mrs. Butterworth.
T., as imagined by Geoff Herbach, is a stand-up comedian. His letters are monologues that could easily be read out loud, which makes a lot of sense considering that Herbach honed his writing (and wrote this novel) during a four year stint with Lit 6, a Midwestern literary group that specialized in edgy, funny, live radio plays performed in theaters and aired on Minnesota Public Radio. Herbach’s sentences leap off the page and demand to be heard.
But T. is also a fully realized character. Herbach gives him insight, heart and memories of the Jewish Holocaust as well as great one liners:
…No building left standing. I could tell you this from my dreams where I am dead, a ghost, floating above the burning city…A brick wall blocking a street, blocking off the whole neighborhood. Everyone inside, dead. I’ve dreamt them dying. What a lovely energy comes from these streets. I understand, I empathize. I have solidarity with the dead.
By the end of The Miracle Letters of T. Rimberg, it becomes all but impossible not to love T.’s all-too human frailties, his larger than life passion for small things like White Castle hamburgers and fake maple syrup, or his need for love and connection. The story of his life is satisfying, surprising tale full of twists, turns, and hope. The Miracle Letters of T. Rimberg, suicidal anti-hero, is a story about hope, told in a voice that is full of the funny, sad, often rude music of life.