Woulff, Iolanthe. “Stainer: A Novel of the ‘Me Decade”, CreateSpace, 2017.
It’s All About Me
I first came to know Iolante Woulff through her first book, “She’s My Dad” several years ago when she dared to write a novel with a transgender hero at a time that this was a topic barely spoken of except within the trans community. I loved that book and an online friendship with the writer developed out of that even though I have not heard from her for quite a while. Since we are both Jewish we shared that in common and she remembered when she finished her next book, “Stainer” with its very Jewish theme.
“Stainer” is set in 1975 in New York (or as some refer to it as the Tel Aviv of America). It was very different back then especially regarding the attitudes of society and the drug subculture flourished. It was a time of hedonism when the individual was the center of his/her world.
We meet Ben Steiner, a spoiled Jewish kid (isn’t that something of an oxymoron?) who grew up on Fifth Avenue. Ben is what we call a nice kid; there is nothing special about him aside from his desire to be one of the cool kids. He was determined, however, ready to improve his current life and that meant finding a girlfriend and losing his virginity. At a party the night he turned twenty-one, Ben met two people who affect his life profoundly. He had completed three years at Columbia and lived in a Jewish communal residence on campus.
Ben thinks that Rebecca Glaser is everything he could possibly want in a girl while P.T. Deighland is a wiseass from Princeton whose irreverence defines him. Yet Ben is taken in by him and this indeed can threaten what he hopes to be his relationship with Rebecca. This is just one of the poor choices that he makes. Then there is Anthea Montague (obviously a “shiksa” who is as ruthless as she is beautiful.
As I began to read, I found myself pulled into the plot by the characters and as much as I hate to admit it, I somewhat identified with Ben. Had the story taken place just ten years earlier, I would have been Ben and while some of my choices were not so terrible, my life would have been so much different had I not made them.
It is through Ben that we see his problems as universal and the scene where Ben becomes sexually aware is brilliant. Ben is conflicted by Judaism, which he sees as an ancient religion that does not have much a place in the modern world of the 1970s. I can only imagine how he would have felt had he lived through this period. He found it to be constraining yet he had a difficult time letting it go. In a coming-of-age novel the things that our protagonists have to deal with are what develops character. I see Ben right up there with the other literary characters whose lives have formed the genre of coming-of-age novels. He is most certainly one that I will never forget.
Woulff is quite a writer and reading her preface on how the book came to me is as beautiful to read as the book itself. Undoubtedly her transition from male to female has played a tremendous role in her life and I love that she has dared to be so open about it.