I first learned of the author from another author friend of mine. I had sent him a couple short pieces I had written and he replied that I wrote sort of like this guy Ron Gompertz. Well I needed to check that out so I read his No Roads to Rome books and decided that it was okay to be compared to Ron. When the author first told me about this new book of his and what it was about, I thought great. The main story line concerns a 13 year old and taking place in the year 1968. I figured I would have a lot in common with the main character even though I was 17 in 1968 to Max’s 13 and I grew up in Detroit while Max was in Laurel Canyon, outside of L.A. While Max’s adventures and acquaintances were different than mine, we both experienced the threat of nuclear war, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, the 1968 Democratic Convention/protests, the Vietnam War, the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia, etc, etc. Another difference between us is that Max is Jewish and is about to be Mitzvahed and I was a Protestant about to begin questioning my faith. It is Max’s Jewish faith and heritage that plays an important part of this story but the author also interjects some wonderful scenes with the hippie denizens of Laurel Canyon. Some of the luminaries encountered in this time of an amazing musical explosion are Frank Zappa, Joni Mitchell, Cass Eliot and the infamous drummer from the Monkees, Mickey Dolenz. Oh yeah, the chapter about The Doors is worth the price of admission.
I can’t say enough good things about the characters in this book. Everyone comes across as totally believable and many mimic traits that I recognize in some of the parallel figures in my life in 1968. The author seamlessly weaves some very serious plot lines in among the humorous scenes and indeed the second half of the book is of a more somber tone, though some of the shenanigans during the Mitzvah ceremony are not only funny but brought back my own memories of the 1968 World Series and my boyhood hero Al Kaline. I hesitate to say too much regarding the subject matter as to not spoil its intense emotional pull on the heart that any reader is bound to experience. Kudos to the author for making me laugh, making me remember, and for making me cry. 5 stars and the highly sought after Hoover Book Review’s “This book will change your life” recommendation ..
An interview with Ron Gompertz
Today I am privileged to welcome to my humble, yet insightful, book review blog, Ron Gompertz, author of the delightful No Roads Lead to Rome series. Ron was recommended to me by fellow author, SJA Turney who, after reading one of my short works said it reminded him of Ron’s style. Well, I did not know I even had a style so was intrigued by the comparison and that has led to this; an interview with the man, himself. Ron has a new book coming out, Life’s Big Zoo and it’s a bit different than his Roman historical fiction.
- Hello Ron and thanks for your time. The first thing that popped into my mind while reading Life’s Big Zoo was, how much of this is autobiographical?
“Life’s Big Zoo” started off as a memoir and, like most memoirs, quickly turned to fiction. That said, the story of a precocious kid growing up between the shadow of the holocaust and the bright lights of the sixties is heavily influenced by my own experiences. I was too young to really participate in the sixties, but old enough to feel both the fear and exhilaration of the times.
I was raised Jewish. My father and his parents managed to get out of Nazi Germany just in time. Most of their extended family wasn’t so lucky. Growing up with this history meant being an outsider in mainstream America and definitely informed much of the novel.
I grew up in Los Angeles like my protagonist. I saw the sixties unfolding from the window of the city bus I rode across town to my “special” elementary school. I listened to KHJ (“Boss Radio for Boss Angeles”) and Wolfman Jack on my transistor radio, listened to the neighborhood garage bands, and was scared by the nightly news.
- I was struck over and over with the comparisons with my own experiences in the late 60’s, the conflict arising between, in my case Christian beliefs and the counter culture of the hippies. In your book it is the Jewish faith of Max’s family up against the residents of Laurel Canyon.
The sixties were a time for seeking meaning and searching outside one’s faith or tribe of origin for universal truths. I was very aware of this, even as a kid trying to figure things out.
“Life’s Big Zoo” is a culturally Jewish story, Jewish with an emphasis on “-ish,” a sort of “Catcher in the Rye Bread” that I hope captures the zeitgeist of Laurel Canyon in 1968. I hope it will resonate beyond just my tribe of origin.
My father’s brand of Judaism was very tolerant of asking big questions and seeing the universality of all faiths. My parents certainly weren’t hippies, but they were very open minded so I spent my energy rebelling against Nixon instead of them.
I’m hoping that baby boomers will find some universal truths and that younger readers will learn something about their parents (or grandparents!) in seeing the kaleidoscopic world of 1968 through the eyes of a twelve year-old protagonist coming of age under peculiar circumstances.
- I fell in love with your characters especially Hannah, Max’s grandmother. She is a joy.
Readers love Nana! My real German grandmother was full of old country wisdom that inspired the character in my book. She wasn’t quite the superhero I created in the book, but she really did say, “God keeps a big zoo.”
- Max’s brother, Tommy, now he could be a composite of guys I grew up with, although I never met Zappa. That must have been quite the scene at old Tom Mix’s cabin.
Tommy brings the rock-and-roll! Back then there were garage bands in every neighborhood and the dream of love, peace, and music was infectious.
I set the story in Laurel Canyon because it was the center of the folk rock universe. Everyone was there from Joni Mitchell to The Doors and everyone in between (including my favorite band at the time, The Monkees”). Laurel Canyon was an artistic and cultural nexus like Paris between the world wars. It’s impossible to overstate how significant and downright groovy it was.
Draft-age, poor student Tommy also brings the specter of Vietnam whose significance is also hard to overstate. Growing up, I figured that if the H-bomb didn’t get me, the war would. Few of us expected to live past the age of thirty.
- While humor does permeate the entire story, the latter third takes on a more somber tone. Without giving anything away, how much of the trip to Germany is true?
The Germany trip was fiction inspired my father’s return to his hometown of Krefeld, fifty years after escaping. He and the other survivors were invited back by schoolkids doing a history project in 1987. He had never intended to return, much less give speeches and meet with journalists and city officials. Meeting the children and grandchildren of the Nazis on this and a subsequent trip brought him to the terrifying question of what he would have done had he not been born Jewish.
We’d all like to think of ourselves as heroes, but history continues to suggest that most of us would remain silent. In “Life’s Big Zoo” I suggest that heroism wears many faces.
Once again, thanks to Ron for taking the time to enlighten me, and my peeps and fellow travelers.
My pleasure! Thanks for your interest and support, Paul.