After the Holocaust: Queen Anne author's first novel poses tough questions

It's easy for a worthy book to fall through the cracks.

Jerome Richard has written a worthy book, "The Kiss of the Prison Dancer," published in 2004. The author did public readings last year at Queen Anne Books and Elliott Bay Books, and that was pretty much it.

"Prison Dancer" fell through the cracks. Not even runner-up status for the 2005 Hemingway/Pen Award will be enough to pull it back from the remainder tables.

The 74-year-old Richard, a first-time novelist and resident of Queen Anne, set his story in the San Francisco of the 1970s. Max Friedman, a concentration-camp survivor, happens upon a young man spilling out of the bushes in Golden Gate Park. The next day he learns that a young woman was raped and murdered in the park the night before.

A neo-Nazi is arrested for the crime. He's not the same person Max saw coming out of the bushes in the park.

Max has a moral dilemma on his hands: The wrong man might be executed for the crime.

And yet, so what: The wrong man is a neo-Nazi. All his life Max had carried in his head the words, "Das geht mich nicht an!"

"It's none of my business."

Max Friedman's altered universe is established in the opening sentence: "Max put on his tie because he believed that people who were well-dressed encountered less trouble in the world."

It is the Holocaust, like nothing else, that has placed before us questions of guilt and responsibility as we go about our everyday lives, though it's possible guilt and responsibility aren't the urgent moral issues they once were.

"Some people didn't like the book," Richard noted, referring to the surprise ending.

It can be argued, given Max's nightmare world, that the plot twist at the end makes perfect sense. It seems hard to believe some people didn't get it.

"It's connected to the whole thing of moral relativism," Richard replied, leaving it at that.

Richard has a master's degree in psychology and English. He was born in New York City in 1931 - "one kid in our neighborhood wasn't Jewish" - and started writing short stories in college. He became a self-described "literary bum," living in Greenwich Village and then the San Francisco of the mid-1950s. When his short-story writing didn't take, he began his teaching career.

The "Prison Dancer" story had been germinating for the past dozen years.

The manuscript received a healthy round of rejections until he changed the ending. Richard is an understated, self-deprecating type not given to big pronouncements. And yet, summarizing the thrust of his book, he says: "We are all responsible for what's going on in the world."

"Prison Dancer" does not retrieve the sights, sounds and smells of 1970s San Francisco. Richard's repertoire doesn't include Hemingwayesque descriptive powers. Like an Old Testament narrative, the story's the thing.

And the stark message of guilt and responsibility.

"'Look how peaceful he looks,'" one of the characters says of a giant Buddha statue in the park. "'He smiles at what's inside him.'"

"Max thought a minute. 'It's easy to smile at what's inside if you're made of stone,' he said."

Richard's book never made a splash, but bestseller lists and critical attention are considerations often having little to do with a book's merits. "Prison Dancer" is memorable enough to linger on with a low-key life of its own.

You can write Publisher Mike Dillon at He can be reached at 461-1283 or by email at

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