By Isaac Bashevis Singer
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003, 228 pages
ISBN 10- 0374529078
ISBN 13 - 978-0374529079
Reviewed by Israel Drazin - February 15, 2010
Isaac Bashevis Singer's Scum is a tale of a 47 year old successful business man, thief and fornicator who hid many of his business deals and money and sex liaisons from his wife, who was his partner. Their son, a teen-ager dies unexpectantly. His wife falls into a deep depression, becomes frigid, and is unable to have a close relationship with him. While he thinks that he is not depressed, he becomes impotent and suffers for several years feeling that he has no enjoyment from his life. He decides to rekindle his zest for life by returning to the ultra-Orthodox Judaism of his youth, beginning with his return to his birthplace Poland and a visit to his parents' graves.
He arrives in Poland in 1906 and is drawn to the thieves' quarter where he discovers two kinds of Jews, the ultra-Orthodox and the unreligious and secular minded criminal class. The former are overwhelmed by piety, study of the Talmud and prayer; the latter by sex.
He makes several attempts to overcome his impotency and to find satisfaction. He becomes involved with five different women, each in a despicable way. He is charmed by the daughter of an extremely poor rabbi and offers her marriage. The girl is young enough to be his daughter. He tries to rape a servant girl to regain his potency. He joins with a woman who is unfaithful to her lover, who is a married man, in an enterprise to seduce or kidnap girls from Poland and take them to his country, Argentina, and place them in a brothel. He has sex with her and thinks that he recovered his potency. He seeks help from a clearly fraudulent clairvoyant to see his dead son and decides to help her escape from a man who is controlling her.
The story, as many written by the Nobel Prize Winner I. B. Singer, can be read as a parable of man's search for meaning and how he is hindered in his search by his failure to realize that he is searching for meaning, his inability to maintain focus on his goal and his failure to abandon his nature, in this case being scum.