Picks and Pans Review: The Penitent

updated 10/24/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/24/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Isaac Bashevis Singer

Joseph Shapiro, a devout Jew from Poland, tells the story of his life in this short novel. He indeed repents sins—not only his own but the world's. Part of the tale seems familiar: After a narrow escape from the horrors of Europe in World War II, Shapiro goes to the U.S. and becomes successful in the real estate business. He takes on a mistress—a most disagreeable woman—and then finds that his wife, too, is unfaithful. Totally disillusioned, he absorbs himself even more passionately in the Jewish faith. The book deals with the most serious subjects, but in Singer's hands The Penitent is comic as well as earthy and outspoken. On his way to Israel after leaving his wife, Shapiro encounters a liberated female who, if she had been able to figure out a way to do it, would have had sex with him right there on the airplane. "How perverse modern man is!" Shapiro muses elsewhere. "All he wants is to violate nature, and when it resists, he runs to psychiatrists for help." Shapiro's indictment of today's world is harsh (if not unreasonable), but his retreat into religion is an extreme and personal solution, inappropriate for others. And Shapiro, while he has an acute sense of evil, is unable to come up with any notion of good. His is a totally defensive life. (Farrar Straus & Giroux, $13.95)

From Our Partners