Lichenstein and Sinclair have taken a fascinating and perplexing mystery and have raised it to the status of urban legend. On many levels, their collaborative attempt succeeds admirably: Lichtenstein skillfully (with some elements of a suspenseful detective story) presents her search for David Rodinsky, whose room was rediscovered, virtually untouched, two decades after it had been abandoned, and Sinclair places the story in its many cultural contexts. Yet, in other ways, their narrative falls short: more questions are raised than answered by their book, and Sinclair's contributions occasionally suffer from a parochialism that makes his discussion difficult for the general reader. As Sinclair himself admits, "The more the mystery of Rodinsky was discussed and debated, the dimmer the outline of the human presence."
The book alternates between chapters by the two authors, and Lichtenstein's contributions are far more straightforward. She weaves her investigation into Rodinsky's identity with her own quest for her Jewish identity and ancestry, and I found her chapters to be far more compelling. Unfortunately, Lichtenstein seems a bit out of her depth when discussing Rodinsky's writings. She confesses she doesn't have the background necessary to understand or translate most of the scraps of papers and journals found in Rodinsky's rooms, yet both she (and Sinclair) repeatedly refer to Rodinsky as a talented linguist and scholar (or a cabbalist). This claim would have been greatly supported by reprinting or summarizing some of the texts left in the room, but we are given only four examples of Rodinsky's apparently prodigious output: two grammatically inept notes to his aunt (including one notable for its venom), the translation of a page of Chinese characters that turns out merely to say "I am David Rodinsky" over and over, and a journal entry on the study of the Assyrian language that could have been written (stylistic errors and all) by a college freshman. Was Rodinsky truly a scholar and a linguist, or was he just a reclusive dabbler? The evidence presented in the book is hardly convincing either way.
Sinclair's nonlinear meditations are also absorbing; he finds parallels to the mystery of Rodinksy in a broad range of literary themes and cultural myths, and he aptly illustrates the East End neighborhood where Rodinsky spent nearly all his life. Although he is a wonderful stylist, Sinclair seems to be writing for his fellow members of the East End literati (and for the critics) rather than for the general reader. Time and again, he mentions London-based semi-celebrities without any introduction whatsoever; I can't imagine many American--or even British--readers knowing most of the people and friends Sinclair mentions. If, before you begin this book, you can't identify Steven Berkoff, David Gascoyne, James Fox, George Melly, John Harle, and dozens of other similarly obscure artists and writers, you will know even less about them after you finish reading Sinclair's chapters. Even better-known writers like Kathy Acker and Arthur Morrison deserve some sort of identification.
Furthermore, Sinclair's chapter placing Rodinsky's story within the context of the mythology of the golem seems far-fetched; the parallels just aren't there. Indeed, most of those who knew Rodinsky clearly find this comparison odious ("There must be no talk of golems, cabbalists, interdimensional voyages, invisibility," says one. "Rodinsky was a man to be pitied, an inadequate [who] unfortunately attained nothing . . . due to his low IQ.") But such objections hardly keep Sinclair from attempting to substantiate this analogy for nearly 30 pages.
Nevertheless, in spite of my rather significant reservations, I found this book overall to be an affecting celebration of the life of a man who otherwise would be one of the many reclusive loners and social outcasts who disappear in the world on a daily basis.