From Kirkus Reviews
Novelist Black (Peep Show, 1986, etc.) takes readers on an odd but affecting journey through Jewish history. A ``bobeh myseh'' is Yiddish for ``grandmother's tale,'' that is, an old family story of dubious provenance, and An Impossible Life is really a series of such stories strung together. Leo Polishook, a writer whose mother has been institutionalized, finds himself searching his own past and that of his parents for a clue as to the roots of her insanity. Delving into his childhood memories, he recalls an ill-concealed adulterous relationship between her and her father's friend Binzy. More than that, he begins working his way backward through the generations, through the manifold sufferings of East European Jews in the 19th and 18th centuries, as well as through the haunting tales of demonic possession and wonder rabbis, a genre familiar from the work of I.B. Singer, among others. Interspersed with these tales is a series of dialogues between Leo and the ghost of his father; these are anything but Hamlet-like, owing more to the Borscht Belt and Woody Allen than to the Bard of Avon. Black brings to all this narrative movement a tremendous joy in the sheer act of storytelling, piling on gangsters and children, musicians and peasants, adultery, insanity, pogroms, transmigrating souls, the whole of it with gusto. As a result, his wry, often enchanting mlange of Jewish history and myth is experienced as a collection of tall tales. Although the book's structure seems rather ramshackle, the authorial voice has considerable charm. Brisk and often funny, marred a little by its structural weakness and an unsatisfying epilogue. -- Copyright ©1998, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved.
In an effort to get to the bottom of his mother's mental illness, Leo Polishook reaches back into his family's history, recalling the stories (both real and imagined) passed down to him from generations of loved ones. What emerges from these memories is a kind of modern folklore, a blending of hard-bitten gangster dramas and magical tall tales, many of which purportedly occurred in the same neighborhood, to the same people. Leo sifts through seven generations of family legend, much as his mother, in a state of dementia, sifts his father's ashes through his sister's marijuana strainer, "trying to save his gold." The real gold here is the imaginative manner with which Black structures his bobeh myseh (a Yiddish term for "old wives' tale"), hiding kernels of truth and moral in the center of fantastic stories. There's Leo's kindly but vicious grandfather, an infamous local mobster ("the Pasha of Allen Street") who counsels and gossips with God Himself over glasses of Slivovitz at a local café. There's his great-grandfather, who strangled a wolf because the beast stood between him and his outhouse. Throughout the novel, Leo also carries on a conversation with his father's ghost, a witty, biting dialogue that provides the book with some of its most moving moments. "The living are surrounded by ghosts," Leo's father explains at one point. "Usually, they ignore them." Black seems to say we do so at our own peril throughout An Impossible Life. In crafting so vivid a narrative, Black shows the reader that to ignore those spirits, their stories, and their collected magic and wisdom is to deny ourselves something greater-a means of self-discovery. -- From Independent Publisher
Some of the tales are told with vaudeville rhythms, some with the inflection and diction of the shtetl. All are impossible, wonderful, irresistible. -- The New York Times Book Review, Barbara Fisher