The Latecomer

The Latecomer by Jean Hanff Korelitz

For Leslie Vought Kuenne,

in memoriam

I caught him with an unseen hook and an invisible line which is long enough to let him wander to the ends of the world and still bring him back with a twitch upon the thread.

—C. K. Chesterton, via Evelyn Waugh


The Oppenheimer triplets—who were thought of by not a single person who knew them as “the Oppenheimer triplets”—had been in full flight from one another as far back as their ancestral petri dish. Not one of the three—Harrison (the smart one), Lewyn (the weird one), or Sally (the girl)—had a speck of genuine affection for either of the others, or had ever once thought of a sister or a brother with anything resembling a sibling bond, let alone as counterparts in a tender and eternal family relationship.

And this despite the years of all-consuming effort from at least one of their parents, to say nothing of the staggering advantages they had enjoyed, beginning with the not-inconsiderable price tag of their making! No, a lingering discontent overhung each of those three, and had since they were old enough to glean their shared origin story, judge their parents, and basically make up their minds about the other two. For eighteen years they’d been together, from that petri dish to their crowded maternal womb to their shared home on the Brooklyn Esplanade (and their shared summer cottage—not really a cottage—on the Vineyard) and their shared education (or indoctrination, in Harrison’s view) at the lauded Walden School of Brooklyn Heights, where a frankly socialist ethos stood in bald contrast to soaring tuition … and at no point did they ever grow closer, not even slightly, not even out of pity for their mother, who had wanted that so badly.

And then they were eighteen, and not just leaving home but desperate to begin three permanently separate adult lives, which is exactly what would have happened if the Oppenheimer family hadn’t taken a turn for the strange and quite possibly unprecedented. But it did—we did—and that has made all the difference.


The Parents


Chapter One

The Horror of It All

In which Salo Oppenheimer meets a rock in the road

Mom had a way of obfuscating when anyone asked how she and our father first met. Mainly she said it was at a wedding in Oak Bluffs, to which she’d been brought as a date by the closeted brother of the groom, and there was her future husband, an usher for one of his fraternity brothers. Both factoids were perfectly true, though the broader assertion was also utterly false. Our parents had met once before, under frankly terrible circumstances, and this is why we all, eventually, understood how impossible it was for her to be truthful. It’s supposed to be a happy question—Where did you two meet?—with a happy answer, opening out to a lifetime of companionship, consequence, and progeny (in our case, lots of progeny). But when that moment dovetails with the very worst event in a young person’s life? Who wouldn’t wish to spare him, and the person innocently asking the question, and, as it happened, our mother herself? The shock. The glare of disapproval. The horror of it all.

The bald fact was that our parents met in central New Jersey, in a conservative synagogue that looked like a brutalist government building somewhere in the Eastern Bloc. The synagogue was Beth Jacob of Hamilton Township, and the terrible occasion was the funeral of a nineteen-year-old girl named Mandy Bernstein, who had died four days earlier in a car driven by her boyfriend, our father, Salo Oppenheimer. Mandy was, by every account, a vibrant young person with a glowing white smile and long dark hair, the eldest child and pride of her family (the Bernsteins of Lawrenceville, New Jersey, and Newton, Massachusetts), a Cornell sophomore and likely psychology major, and (as far as she herself was concerned) the joyfully intended future life partner of Salo Oppenheimer. Mandy Bernstein was one of two Cornell students who’d perished in the accident, the other being Salo’s friend and fraternity brother, Daniel Abraham, a kind boy who was on a first or possibly second date with the other person in the back seat. That person was still hospitalized in Ithaca. Salo alone had walked away from the wreck.

Even then, nobody blamed him. Nobody! Even in those early days, in the grief and rage of the Abraham and Bernstein families and the many friends of the two young people who were suddenly, horribly, not there, it was somehow held by all present in the synagogue (and, the following week, at the E. Bernheim and Sons Funeral Chapel in Newark, New Jersey, where Daniel Abraham would be memorialized) that Salo Oppenheimer’s brand-new Laredo had been traveling at an eminently reasonable speed down a perfectly respectable road when it hit a loose rock and—abruptly, incomprehensibly—flipped, landing on its roof, half on and half off the road. It was, in other words, at least in those houses of God, as if the hand of God itself had picked up that vehicle and dropped it back to earth. Who could explain the mystery? Who could make comprehensible the loss?

Not Salo, that was certain. He sat in the second row at his girlfriend’s funeral service, four stitches in his scalp and an Ace bandage (not even a cast!) on his left wrist, out of his mind with shock and guilt, barely taking in the stream of Mandy’s cousins and high school friends and the contingent of Bernsteins who’d made aliyah a few years earlier but were now, appallingly, here in Hamilton Township, weeping and looking at him but still: not blaming him. At least to Salo’s face, everyone seemed to be blaming … the Jeep.

Why the Jeep? Why, why, the Jeep? He’d had his choice of cars, and in fact had been on the point of purchasing a sparkling gray 300-D from Mercedes-Benz of Manhattan when his grandmother phoned his mother to say that it was a disgrace for any Jew to drive a Mercedes, and was Salo so removed from his own Jewishness, from the fact and fate of his own martyred ancestor Joseph Oppenheimer (Goebbels’s own Jud Süss!) that he did not understand the company had used concentration camp labor to build armaments and airplane engines? In fact, the answer to that was: yes, as Salo’s Jewishness was not particularly acute, either in the religious or, at the age of nineteen, all that much in the historical sense. Certainly he was well aware of the mythic Jud Süss—“court Jew” to the Duke of Wurttemberg in the 1730s, convicted of a bouquet of fictional crimes when his boss died suddenly, and executed, his corpse hung in a gibbet for six years outside of Stuttgart—but that all felt so very eighteenth century, and Salo was a young man fresh out of the 1960s, when the entire culture had coalesced around his own generation’s youth and vigor and renunciation of the past. Besides, he’d really, really liked that Benz a lot, its sleek shape and leather seats, the vaguely European sophistication he’d felt sitting behind the wheel. After that phone call, though, it was a moot issue, and some instinct had sent him in the opposite direction: from the Nazi Mercedes-Benz company to that perfectly all-American anti-Semite Henry Ford.

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