I talked in my post yesterday about how much I love this book, and I said that I wanted to do a more in depth analysis of the book. This is probably the longest single book review that I have, and it somehow seems fitting to me that this should be the book for it.
The Willow Tree takes place in New York City sometime in probably the late 1970’s to the early 1980’s. Selby never says the exact year that the story takes place, but one of the main characters is a Holocaust survivor, so assuming he was in his early 20’s when he was sent to the camp, he’s probably in his 60’s or 70’s when the story takes place.
One of the things that Selby gains from setting the story in NYC is that he can safely assume that the reader is at least going to have a basic vision of the city. Whether you like or dislike the fact that NYC is very prominent in media, you can’t deny that most people have at least an idea of what the city is like. This lets him jump immediately into the story, and that’s exactly what he does. One of the things that Selby does as well or better than most other authors that I’ve read is his willingness to be mean to his characters. This book is a perfect example of that because he literally kicks his main character in the teeth on the fourth page of the book. While a Latino gang attacks Bobby, his girlfriend Maria actually gets the worst out of the exchange as she has lye thrown in her face while she is trying to break up the fight.
But even as Selby shows the negative side of people, he also quickly shows the positive side as a couple of guys who are hanging out at a local bar see Bobby as he stumbles past. They give him a little bit of alcohol to help ease his pain as they also bandage a couple of his wounds. Bobby leaves the bar after a short time and goes to a deserted area of the city where Moishe finds him.
Moishe is an elderly man who largely keeps to himself, but when he finds Bobby in an abandoned building Moishe decides to help Bobby. We’re not told early in the book exactly why Moishe decides to help Bobby, but as the story unfolds we’re slowly shown more of Moishe’s past and why he decides to help Bobby.
From this point on the book follows Bobby as he continues his quest for revenge against the gang that assaulted him and Maria, and Moishe as he tries to teach Bobby that the hate he feels for those who wronged him will end up destroying him.
The single biggest part of this story is following Bobby as he seeks his revenge. Once again Selby does a fantastic job of showing just how far you can push a character. Bobby is 13 when the novel starts, and he quickly gets beaten to the brink of death. When he finally recovers enough to go back to his old neighborhood he talks to his younger brother only to find out that Maria has killed herself because of the pain from being burned by the lye as well as what she hears and how she is treated in the hospital while the doctors try to help her recover as much as they can.
On a side note, Selby also does a fantastic job of showing the pain that Maria feels, as well as showing the pain that her family feels. Many times in fiction there are reasons why everything happens, and you could argue that what happens to Maria mostly takes place to push Bobby along his arc. But by showing the viewpoints of Maria – as well as her mother and grandmother – he also shows us one of the most painful facts of life; that bad things can happen to good people for no reason.
Bobby has had a very rough life; he is being raised in a rough neighborhood by a single mother who is trying to raise Bobby as well as his younger siblings. There are just a few short sections where Selby talks about Bobby’s mother, but you learn that she doesn’t really like the situation that she’s in, and that she became a mother at a very young age, well before she was ever ready to really be a parent.
From everything that he’s been exposed to in his young life, Bobby thinks that the only way to move forward after being attacked is to seek revenge. He constantly tells Moishe that he is going to get his revenge, and specifically that he is planning on killing Raul, the leader of the gang that attacked him.
Into Bobby’s chaotic life, Selby introduces the stabilizing force of Moishe. The juxtaposition of the two characters way of looking at life is what makes this novel work. Bobby doesn’t have an easy life, but everything that he’s been through seems like nothing at all when you compare it to the struggles that Moishe has gone through in his life.
Reading the novel for a second time, I picked up a few things about Moishe’s life that I didn’t remember from my first read through. And the things that I picked up made it even more amazing that he is able to forgive those who have wronged him.
Prior to World War 2, Moishe – who was going by his given name of Werner Schultz at the time – was working as a handyman with his business partner Klaus. He had a loving family with his wife Gertrude and son Karl-Heinz. However, Klaus was greedy and saw a perfect opportunity to get rid of Moishe and take over the business completely. He convinces several members of the Nazi party that Moishe is Jewish and gets him sent to a concentration camp for 4 years. After finally being freed from the camp, Moishe and his family move to America, where his son is drafted into the army and sent to Vietnam, where he is killed. After this, Moishe’s wife dies, leaving him alone.
Despite all of this, Moishe is still an optimistic person who does everything that he can to help Bobby overcome his feelings of hatred.
The central theme of the story is Bobby’s redemption, and how Moishe continuously tries to help Bobby realize that his hate will only destroy him. One of the things that I love about this book is that Moishe never tries to stop Bobby from seeking his revenge, but instead tells Bobby about his own life. In some ways, Moishe actually helps Bobby in his quest for revenge by buying him weights and teaching him how to work out to make him stronger. And when Bobby uses his new strength to attack the members of Raul’s gang, Moishe never reprimands him, instead continuing to tell Bobby that his hate will end up killing him as well as his enemies.
Moishe is arguably the best mentor character that I’ve ever seen in fiction. He has unceasing patience, and rather than trying to force Bobby to abandon his quest for revenge, he simply tells his story and gives Bobby the tools to make his own decisions. One of my favorite quotes from the book describes Moishe’s strategy perfectly:
What is it you are going to do Werner???? Nothing, just hope. Maybe my tongue will be guided? Yes, what other hope is there, only that my tongue will be silent so my heart can speak.
Later in the book, Bobby begins to realize the strength that Moishe shows in being able to forgive his enemies. (I haven’t mentioned it to this point, but from Bobby’s viewpoint, he consistently refers to Moishe as Mushie.)
an somehow he be seein Mushie different, like how he see those old beat up buildins. Used to be he see them like tumbling down bricks, but now he see they be strong muthafuckas stayin up there like that even when everybody tryin to tear their asses down…yeah, they be righteous the way they still standin…an Mushie righteous the way he keep standin up. Sheeit, he like some muthafuckin mountain, or that river out there, cant be nothing stopping it or Mush.
This book is easily one of the top 3 or 4 books that I have ever read. If you’ve never read Selby’s work, this book is a perfect example of why he should be one of the more celebrated writers from the latter half of the 20th century.