Zwilling's Dream is a novel with a secret smile -- a wry, knowing, been-pushed-around-by-life-but-I'm-still-standing sort of smile. Loaded with eccentric but well-meaning characters, Pushcart Prize-winner Ross Feld's fourth published novel (after Only Shorter, Years Out, and Shapes Mistaken) acts as a window into the intersection of several messed-up contemporary lives. A jigsaw of relationships -- children and parents, husbands and wives, lovers and strangers -- comes together in a wholly satisfying way, marrying dark comedy with empathy for Feld's bewildered batch of story people.
A literary sensation at twenty-two with the publication of his autobiographical novel about growing up as the child of Holocaust survivors, Joel Zwilling's got a monster case of writer's block. His second two novels had been received with very little enthusiasm, and shortly after a short story about a widowered writer and his depravities was accepted by Harper's, Joel's wife and one of his twins (the girl) were killed in a car accident near the family's rented summer cottage. Taking their deaths as a message from fate, the guilt-ridden elder Zwilling swears off writing, packs up the remaining child (his son Nate), and leaves New York for a teaching stint in a small Indiana college, ultimately settling into a similar job and a reasonable life in Cininnati, even remarrying.
When the jittery Brian Horkow, a down-and-out Hollywood director, is offered the opportunity to redeem his reputation making a film for the newly-formed Warshaw Holocaust Studies Foundation, he picks Joel's novel from the heap of available Holocaust fiction. His choice is made based on a brief acquaintance with the author when both were medical students. Joel, adamantly not interested in Brian's proposition, rebuffs the director. Brian turns to his onetime lover and sometime assistant Selva, who approaches Joel's son Nate, himself an avant-garde writer of diaries he co-publishes with his girlfriend, Polly. It's Nate they want, Joel tells himself, all the while desperately hoping that it's Nate they do want.
Father and son visit Brian in California briefly; the director is called home to his daughter (an 11-year old with cystic fibrosis, leaving them in Selva's competent and attractive hands. The bewildered Zwillings head back to Cincinnati, unsure of where things stand vis a vis the film. Soon, though, Brian and Selva descend on their adopted hometown for a round of on-location pre-production, opening old wounds and building new bridges as they invade the Zwillings' lives. Brian, a manic-depressive (who won't take his meds) and father of three (the CF-girl and a pair of adopted twin boys), and Selva, a decidedly single young woman dreading the impending hysterectomy made necessary by severe endemetriosis, are a hopeful pair. They bring along a pile of emotional baggage, drawing new acquaintances out while inadvertently taking them in. A series of shared moments, revelations and near-disasters are punctuated by a final catastrophe, unveiling truths and redeeming lives.
Ross Feld treats his characters thoughtfully, without judgment, letting them reveal themselves in all their idiosyncratic glory. They dash about the business of life, tilting their heads quizzically in the direction of their loved ones' lives, as they keep on trying to figure it all out. Zwilling's Dream is a rare treat, a quiet, clean, sympathetic study of people whom you love getting to know.