Review of Elliot
Rais’s Stealing The Borders
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 11/25/05
While trolling through a local discount bookseller a month or so ago I came across a small 1994 paperback book called Stealing The Borders, by Elliot Rais. It was blue in color, and boasted two front cover blurbs that caught my eye. No, they were not of the usual fellatric variety from another writer who expected favors done in return. Instead they were from Borscht Belt comedian Jackie Mason and comic actress Madeline Kahn.
The former’s read, ‘It made
me cry. It made me laugh. It was so good, I can't believe I didn't write it
myself.’ The latter’s read, ‘....Fascinating. It's hard to put it down.’
The book’s website, www.webdriver.com/go/stealing, even comes with a blurb from a local paper of my old New York
City nabe, The Ridgewood News.
It says, ‘Stealing The Borders will steal your heart.’
Well, not exactly. And Jackie Mason is not noted as a top literary
critic. Still, despite being an autobiography written by a man who’s not a
professional writer it’s alot more fluid and interesting than some of the
bilious and dull memoirs that have crept into public in the decade-plus since,
such as the crap put forth by a Dave Eggers or an Elizabeth Wurtzel. Rais is an
entrepreneur, inventor, professor, and engineer who grew up in Europe during
World War Two- he was born in 1940. His family lived in Germany, Russia, other
Soviet states, and they kept heading east to avoid the Nazi push into Mother
Russia. There, Rais knew happiness, albeit an uneducated one- he spent only two
months in formal schooling until he was twelve. This happiness consisted mostly
of speaking to other lost souls and eating bugs. There is a great deal of humor
in the book, and much of it comes from the blunt, and deadpan stylings from
Rais’s pen. While the book boasts that his tale is Horatio Alger meets Woody
Allen, and akin to the best works of Neil Simon and Philip Roth, the truth is
the book reminded me of a lesser version of an unpublished novel I read by Bruce
Ario, called Cityboy. Something odd, affecting, or humorous occurs, and
Rais tells it straight, then moves on unaffectedly. He has a rat-a-tat rhythm to
his writing, which results in a very Vaudevillian comic tempo to his
After the war ended Rais and his Jewish clan, fled Stalinist Russia by
night, and snuck back across into West Germany, where they spent nearly seven
years in a DP (Displaced Persons) camp, scrimping and saving enough money to
make a long boat trip to America in 1951. Even at an early age Rais showed
entrepreneurial skills, by hawking some ice cream his family made in the camp.
But, mostly his life seemed to be a budding comedian’s delight. Between breaks
of his leg, Rais had a wonderful time. Even when he wore a cast he was able to
seduce a little blond Aryan girl into his bed. His arrival in America was not
what he thought it would be, but his parents scraped, and he survived years in
public school classes filled with delinquents because he was almost illiterate.
Several funny scenes ensued, including one where he bluffed some bullies who
were threatening him by challenging them to a duel to the death. He convinced
them of his expertise by pointing to his ‘swordfighting scar’ gotten from
his broken leg..
By the 1960s, Rais had, despite no high school diploma, made his way into college and gotten a few degrees, before landing a job at Big Blue, IBM. Several romantic interludes are described, but mostly with speed and dispassion. The lone exception is a shiksa lover he had in Mexico, whose letters of love were hidden from Rais by his mother. It was only a few weeks before his wedding that he found out of his mother’s duplicity. His marriage grew and failed, but little attention is paid to the personal sides of Rais’s life, and by the 1980s the tale just fizzles, which reminded me a bit of poet James Emanuel’s memoir, The Force And The Reckoning. It’s as if the author simply lost interest in those things that occurred nearer the present day of the book’s creation. Overall, the strengths of Rais’s descriptions of his early life, before college, are good enough to carry interest. In fact, in certain ways, Rais- as a child- emerges as a much more likeable and interesting boy than Frank McCourt does in Angela’s Ashes, which was published two years later. Granted, Rais is not near the writer- in detail nor poesy- McCourt is at his best, but save for the last chapter or two, Rais’s book does not drag like McCourt’s does for its first two thirds.
For example, early on (page 32) Rais opines about his earliest memories, memory in general, and how it can affect the writing of such a book: ‘I don’t know how much of those five years I really remember. I’ve heard the story of this part of my life from relatives so many times that I cannot differentiate between my own memory and their collective memory. These were hard times of bare survival, and I know I remember at least the latter part of that experience.’ There are also several key memories of his father- such as his telling the truth to Soviet officers, resulting in his father nearly getting executed, and his lateness in getting back on a train headed out of Russia, and his father having to get him and run back to barely make it back to the train as it was pulling away. The very title of the book comes from ‘stealing the border’ of successive European countries on their western trek out of the Soviet Union.
Another excellent observation comes on page 208, ‘America, I decided, is an interesting country. It is perhaps the only country in the world where it is easier to acquire things than to dispose of them.’ This comes after a scene where Rais, fed up with having to pay to have certain garbage hauled away, simply wrapped some garbage in wrapping paper, and waited for people to steal it. While not in any way a great piece of literature, this should be ideal stuff for a film. I could easily envision Billy Crystal playing Rais, and narrating the film. I would check out his website to see where the book might be available- if it’s still in print- and enjoy a good couple hours of easy and humorous reading. There are far worse ways to spend your time. Stealing The Borders is a good tale.
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