Welcome back to our online discussion of Will Eisner's The Contract With God Trilogy: Life on Dropsie Avenue. Throughout May, we'll be discussing the book as part of both Reader's Den and NYC Summer.
Below is our schedule, but please feel free to comment on any post over the course of the month:
Week 1: Introduction
Week 2: A Contract With God (p. 3-180)
Week 3: A Life Force (p. 181-322)
Week 4: Dropsie Avenue (p. 323-498)
Last week, we talked about Will Eisner, The Spirit, and the Eisner Awards. We now turn to the first book in the trilogy, A Contract With God and Other Tenement Stories, which was originally published in 1978, and is made up four stories: "A Contract With God", "The Street Singer", "The Super", and "Cookalein".
"A Contract With God" immediately grabbed me with its tale of the dark descent of Frimme Hersh, from beloved orphan in the poor Jewish community of Piske to ruthless New York City landlord who dies at the very moment he has attained peace. I particularly liked the ambiguity of the narrative: one could interpret his heart attack (and subsequent fire) as either divine retribution or senseless tragedy. Also, Hersh's loss of faith after the death of his daughter takes on a new resonance in light of the fact that Eisner began the book shortly after he lost his own sixteen-year-old daughter to leukemia.
While the first story offers a sad, but almost classic arc of failed redemption, "The Street Singer" and "The Super" seem to venture into even bleaker territory and seem particularly grounded in the reality of the Bronx during the Great Depression. In the former, we have the rather unsympathetic street singer protagonist, Eddie, who is drawn as a violent, lost man who glimpses a brighter future only to forget the address of the opera singer who is his ticket to fame. The latter is interesting in that it initially presents Mr. Scagg as a racist and sexually deviant cartoon of a man, only to later paint him as a rather heartbreaking character, after his dog is poisoned and he is driven to suicide.
Lastly, "Cookalein" manages to capture that ineffable feeling of freedom in escaping the city during the summer. In my mind, it seems to combine the universal aspect of "A Contract With God" with the raw, messy observatons of life found in both "The Street Singer" and "The Super". This final story presents an archetypal "loss of innocence" story through the character of Willie, while not shying away from the sexuality and violence that accompanies it.
Some discussion questions:
- Which was your favorite of the four stories? Why were you drawn to that one in particular?
- Did you find the characters, like Frimme Hersh and Mr. Scaff, sympathetic despite their obvious character flaws?
- Do these four stories feel modern to you or do they feel tied specifically to New York City in the 1930s?