Anyone trying to map out Ijah Brodsky’s family tree in Saul Bellow’s short story “Cousins” is probably missing the point.
Ijah narrates the story in what has become familiar ramblings in the works I’ve read by Bellows so far. In this case, Ijah jumps from Cousin Tanky’s connection to the Chicago mob to Tanky’s sister Eunice who enlists Ijah for some legal help with her brother to ninety-one year-old Cousin Motty who is in a car accident but gives Ijah numerous letters from Cousin Scholem, whom he (Ijah) hasn’t seen in thirty years, asking for assistance to get buried in East Germany. The story is set in 1983 before the Berlin Wall came down. Many of Ijah’s relatives lived there prior to the wall going up. Cousin Seckel and Cousin Riva and Cousin Mendy all have some part in the ramblings, as well.
As narrator, Ijah comes across as a little more cynical than the narrators of the other Bellow stories I’ve read although I get the feeling that cynicism is a familiar quality in Bellow’s characters. If all the cousins have a purpose in the story, I would say that it’s to highlight the detachment Ijah doesn’t necessarily mind feeling from his society. He doesn’t have much to say about his immediate family. Perhaps, the cousins provide him a family of sort but with some needed distance.
Ijah’s ex-wife Sabel zeros in on his issues to which Ijah willingly agrees:
“…you have an exuberance that you keep to yourself. You have a crazy high energy absolutely peculiar to you. Because of this high charge you can defy the plain dirty facts that other people have to suffer through, whether they like it or not. What you are is an exuberance hoarder, Ijah. You live on your exuberant hoard.
Of course, the cousins also provide the story with tons of comedy as they play the wacko’s to Ijah’s straight man.