Here is an autobiography that is as wary of its subject matter as a veteran submitting to the questions of a gore-besotted grandchild, a book that dangles mystical lights in front of the eyes, but flicks them off before the eyes can adjust to an irregular spectrum. I, Wabenzi, the first of a projected four volumes by Rafi Zabor—PEN/Faulkner award–winning author, peripatetic mystic, drummer and jazz critic—expends a great deal of energy trying to get its subject’s literary and spiritual selves to synch up.
Volume 1 begins in the mid ’80s, when the newly orphaned Zabor is thirty-nine years old and finds himself at a low ebb. For three years he’d presided over his parents’ deterioration while living mostly at home in their Brooklyn apartment. Longing for a sojourn to regain his equilibrium, Zabor formulates a plan to buy a vehicle and drive it around Turkey, a country that, in the past, he’d found to be a place of spiritual rejuvenation.
Alas, Zabor’s road trip doesn’t get underway, at least not in this volume.The narrative ricochets between describing the author’s preparations for his trip and sketching out a personal and familial history that is emblematic of much twentieth-century American history, particularly as it relates to the experience of Jewish immigrants. For example: Zabor’s father fled Poland just as Europe was lowering its anti-Semitic sledgehammer. In America, he availed himself of menial labor, eventually becoming the proprietor of his own business. Mindful of the constricting horrors of the old country, Zabor’s parents raised him in a liberal environment where the religious impulse was kept at a distance. In early adulthood, Zabor so distanced himself from his parents’ secular ways that he fell in with a spiritual group in California; this dalliance eventually led him to the Beshara Center in England, a place dedicated to the cultivation of its residents’ spiritual growth and whose practices bear the mark of Sufism.
Like a soloist given to fugue, Zabor introduces people and themes quickly, elaborating upon them later. The prospect of additional volumes makes it difficult to say if, for instance, Bulent, a man of great influence in the Beshara community, will come to elicit a corresponding reverence on the part of readers. The book slips and slides all over the chronological scale— deferring a meditation on the spiritual matters that are obviously at the forefront of the author’s concern— because of the author’s embarrassment by his own spiritual riches, a discomfort to which he readily admits. Subsequently, self-deprecations dog most of the book’s remarks about mysticism. Referring to the period when he joined up with the group in California, Zabor compares it to running away with the circus. Later, when he revisits England and peeks in on how middle age has settled onto his former Beshara colleagues, he tempers his reminiscences with a bunch of “wasn’t that a loony time” hubble-bubble. The purpose of this aw-shucks behavior is obviously to defang skeptics. But really it’s not needed. Considering that Zabor is able to generate interest even when discussing more oft-tread subjects such as what it’s like to grow up Jewish with an overbearing mother, he should be positively home-free when discussing, as he points out, an “under-recorded subculture.” One hopes that Zabor’s pen will find more confidence in the later volumes by divesting itself of a concern for whomever might be snickering.