A.B. Yehoshua's latest novel is an infuriating piece of writing. By turns brilliant and dull, too often what should be the best bits are the most boring, and what in another novel would be scenes of lethargy are lifted high on the strength of Yehoshua's characterization. What, then, to make of Friendly Fire? It is neither poor nor overly remarkable and at times seems to be a poor novel interwoven with something very good, or perhaps a good novel riddled with patches of bad.
The novel opens with Amotz and Daniella, husband and wife, at the airport before she leaves, alone, to Africa – their first trip apart in what seems to be forever. Amotz is concerned because Daniella's sister has recently died, and it is her brother-in-law she is visiting, Yirmiyahu, a reasonably unstable middle-aged man who has turned his back on his Jewish heritage as firmly as he knows how. Daniella is concerned for Amotz because she knows he needs his wife. As the couple splits so, too, does the novel, ripping itself into the very good – Amotz's adventures, surprisingly, which amount to wandering around fixing elevators and hanging out with children, mostly – and the very bad, which is Daniella's story, a journey rife with confrontation, exploration, journeys into the soul, and so on. The novel bounces back and forth between them in very short chapters of four or five pages, and structurally the entire work is divided into eight 'candles', representing the eight days of Hannukah.
Daniella's trip to Africa should provide the novel's centerpiece, the core around which the rest of the novel revolves. In some ways, it does, but not as much as it should. Yehoshua stumbles right out the gate by making Daniella an overwhelmingly unsympathetic character, particularly when placed alongside her husband. She is extraordinarily vapid, possessing very little of an internal life beyond shallow observations and meaningless babble about popular books and the wonders of real-live African people having dark skin. Her journey through African culture comes across as the recounting of a reasonably intelligent but overall ignorant person's tourist jaunt through the sanitized areas of a nation – nothing real is felt here, though Daniella believes it is. Her encounter with brother-in-law Yirmiyahu fall into the regular, though interesting, pattern of pedagogic writing – he lectures her, incessantly, on Jews and the Jewish problem of Israel, as well as the grief he has felt over his wife's and, much earlier, son's deaths.
Daniella's ignorance is her advantage here, though it mostly has her asking 'why' and 'how' and other such questions, anything that allows the thrust of the conversation to return to Yirmiyahu. He probes deeply into the Old Testament and the Jewish (and, one presumes, Christian, if they ever bother to read the Old Testament) preoccupation with the more sanitized stories. Yirmiyahu sees the Jews as glorifying their past above their present, allowing themselves to stagnate amongst the US-provided military might of arms and ammunition.
Amotz's story, on the other hand, is much more simple. As plainly as possible, he investigates two separate malfunctioning elevators. Along the way he speaks with his aging father, plays with his grandchildren, and watches his son and wife argue and make up. Not a great deal happens in these chapters, but they are the most satisfying due to Amotz's character. Where Daniella is bland, he is penetrating and insightful, applying a critical eye to his actions and those of the people around him. Amotz is very much an introvert, constantly analyzing everything around him to determine how it all reflects on his worldview. In this way, Amotz is the quiet refutation of Yirmiyahu's complaints – he is a man engaged, he is a man comfortable with his Jewish life and heritage, he is a man happy with his home and secure in his self.
But is this enough? A gauntlet is thrown when Yirmiyahu rages against the Jews, but nobody stoops to pick it up. Daniella and Amotz, when they reunite, signal the closing of the novel, which means that any insight she was able to provide him, or he to her, must wait until after we have left them. This represents an astonishing bait and switch on Yehoshua's part, because after all the build up, we do not get to see Yirmiyahu answered. Amotz, we know, is capable of discussing these problems with Yirmiyahu, but they never share a word. Daniella is grossly incapable, and they talk and talk and talk. One wonders why Yehoshua chose to have the 'wrong' person go on the trip, but perhaps the reason can be sufficiently answered as a timidity of ambition.
Friendly Fire promises a great deal with its lectures on the Jewish soul, but it offers very little else. It is not enough to simply present a problem like this – the author must present a solution, or multiple solutions, or even another side of the argument. But Yehoshua has not. Amotz's half of the novel is rewarding, but ultimately it, too, falls short thanks to a hasty conclusion. The Jewish problem remains unresolved, as it must even if this had been the greatest of all Jewish novels. But at the same time, one cannot help but wish Yehoshua had provided us with a little more meat, something of substance we could chew on.