The Beggar King and the Secret of Happiness
Author: Joel Ben Izzy
Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
Publication date: November 7, 2003
Reviewed by Daniel S. Brenner
In lecture six of The Varieties of Religious Experience, the Sick Soul,
William James quotes Robert Louis Stevenson -“There is indeed one element in human
destiny that not blindness itself can controvert. Whatever else we are
intended to do, we are not intended to succeed; failure is the fate allotted.” James
adds that “our nature being thus rooted in failure, is it any wonder that
theologians should have held it to be essential, and thought that only through the
personal experience of humiliation which it engenders the deeper sense of
life’s significance is reached?”
Failure is at the heart of first time author Joel ben Izzy’s “The Beggar King
and the Secret of Happiness ” a memoir by a traveling storyteller who learns
at the age of thirty-seven that he has thyroid cancer. In ben Izzy’s
narrative, he skillfully places his own failures in navigating through a life with a life-threatening disease in the context of the failures of two other men – his father’s failure to provide for his family and his mentor’s failure to overcome depression.
Ben Izzy has much to add. Here, for example, is a Sufi tale that he cites –
“Oh, great sage, Nasrudin,” said the eager student, “I must ask you a very
important question, the answer to which we all seek: What is the secret to
Nasrudin thought for a time, then responded. “The secret of happiness is good
“Ah,” said the student. “But how do we attain good judgment?”
“From experience,” answered Nasrudin.
“Yes,” said the student. “But how do we attain experience?’
The hook of ben Izzy’s story comes in the irony involved in one of the
complications surrounding the disease. After successful surgery for his tumor, he
loses his voice. He is told that he will never speak again. The quiet tragedy
that unfolds is apparent as a man who makes a living as a professional
storyteller can’t even read a story to his two young children. At first Michela would forget. “Daddy tell a story! A Chelm story! Or the one about the lost horse! Or the Irish king story!”
Then, Elijah would remind her. “No, Michaela. We don’t want to hear a story, do we?” She’d shake her head in agreement. His attempts to speak
without properly working vocal cords lead him to a further sense of failure and
humiliation. He walks around his house in a funk and spins himself back into
the world of his cranky mentor.
Ben Izzy is funny, and one of his best jokes is a parable that captures this
book’s simple brilliance:
A man goes to a tailor and gets fitted for a new suit. Two weeks later the
man tries on the suit and it fits terribly. “One sleeve is too long and one is
to short. The pants are tight here and baggy here,” he says to the tailor.
The tailor replies “The suit is fine, just hold your shoulder back like this
and lean down like this and then put your left foot back like this…Perfect!”
The man walks out on to the street, hobbling along awkwardly as the tailor
had instructed him. Two women notice him.
“My God! What happened to him?” one says.
“I don’t know,” says the other, “but that’s a great-looking suit!”
The suit that fits ben Izzy’s twisting narrative is a series of fourteen folktales that he has selected. In them he imparts Zen, Hindu, Christian, and Muslim tales as well as the Jewish stories which are his native tongue. Between the tales, Ben Izzy works wonders with his central paradox of a speechless storyteller – and while he keeps his narrative light, he generally avoids fluffy spiritual summations. Except for some of the scenes with his cigar smoking mentor that have a “Tuesday’s with Morrie” feel, the interactions he has with his family are genuine and moving. Particularly moving are the moments when he communicates with his mother via an eraser board.
“Why so quiet?” she asked again. “You haven’t said a thing since you got here.”
Again I took out my eraser board and wrote, “I lost my voice.”
A puzzled look appeared on her face. “You have laryngitis?”
I shook my head. “Cancer,” I wrote.
You feel for his desperation, and hope for some redemption. So how does ben Izzy pick himself up from the failure of his vocal cords and fear of an early grave to attain “a deeper sense of life’s significance?”
Though ben Izzy briefly mentions a desire to hear God’s voice, this book is marked by an absence of theological quest or questioning during a time of illness. The problem of evil, which so riddles Reynolds Price’s meditations on cancer in his work Letter to
a Man in the Fire is absent here. Nor does ben Izzy join forces with
the demonic and go Vegas – either the Fear and Loathing or Leaving Las Vegas
variety that makes for a tasty parable of self-destruction. Rather, ben Izzy
looks for “life’s significance” in the folktales themselves.
In this way, ben Izzy’s little book of folktales and memoir solidifies the rise of a literary culture that Stanford philosopher Richard Rorty has articulated. In Rorty’s essay, “The Decline of Redemptive Truth and the Rise of Literary Culture” he argues that humanity has gone through three great stages of development. They are monotheism, in which religion offers hope through entering a covenant with a supremely powerful non-human. Philosophy, in which a set of beliefs tell us what is true about the world we live in, and literary culture – which does not care about What is True but about “What is new?”
In a literary culture, it is not only the canon set by Harold Bloom that becomes sacred text. The surviving remnant of the people’s religion – their folktales- also become sacred. Folktales have advantages in a literary culture. Like the Five Books of Moses, their author is invisible, their origins are secret, and there are no royalties to be paid. Even the style by which they are told – with careful detail in some places and purposeful omissions in others – echoes the ancient biblical narrative. If that isn’t enough to solidify the folktales ascendancy, in The Beggar King and the Secret of Hapinness the folktales are placed in a special font and with accompanying flourishes. It is as if life were simply a commentary on a set of tales.
The translator Hillel Halkin once wrote that “Folktales, like jokes and
mythical serpents – change their skins often but have extremely long lives.”
While folktales touch immortality ben Izzy’s book proves that they work best in helping us through the mortal’s journey. What is new in his work is that he has returned the memoir genre to its ancestral roots– here every personal revelation is a portal to a tale more universal in scope. Ben Izzy is to be praised. In a world that is increasingly self-referential he still finds redemptive truth, albeit with a lower-case “t”.
published in Crosscurrents