Retracing memory in ‘All the Answers’

Michael Kupperman is the author of the graphic novel “All The Answers.”

It is no accident that cartoonist-writer Michael Kupperman’s “All The Answers” provides very little of what the title promises. It is, instead, much more interested in questions.

The memoir, which recounts Kupperman’s investigation of his father’s experience as a national celebrity, is his first serious work. His comics, often absurd, often nonsensical and always funny, have appeared everywhere from The New Yorker to Adult Swim, but none have so explicitly plumbed his own life.

The story is this: Michael Kupperman, seeing that his aging, philosophy professor father is beginning to lose his memory, decides to finally pursue the mysteries that have always dogged him. What was his father’s involvement with the show “Quiz Kids”? What did it do to him? And what does it have to do with fame, immigrants, child prodigies and mid-century Jewish life in America?

What he finds out is that for about a decade, Joel Kupperman was one of the most famous people in America. As the star math whiz on one of the early radio quiz shows, and later one of the first televised quiz shows, Joel Kupperman was a household name for millions of Americans. He rubbed elbows with Milton Berle and Orson Welles; he wowed Marlene Dietrich with his knowledge of multiplication tables; he appeared in a film with Donald O’Connor. Bob Hope used him as a punchline.

Joel’s time on the show was “the most formidable limiting factor in my life,” as Joel once put it. And yet those years had been mostly obscured from Michael.

But his father’s years on “Quiz Kids” did have an impact on his son: They lurked behind the painful moments and missed opportunities for connection during his childhood. One half-memory from the early ’70s: Floating in a pool, Michael asks his father, “Daddy, do you love me?”

His father replies, “Some of the time.”

This is not his father’s only parenting misstep. At another point, Joel tells his son: “I mean, it didn’t occur to me that I should take a hand in steering you.” But Michael doesn’t pass judgment on his father; as robotic as Joel comes off to those around him, to whack him for the conditions of Michael’s upbringing would be useless. Joel’s abandoned memoir is titled “Becoming Human,” and at one point, he insists that he was “manufactured” as a World War II propaganda tool to get smart Jewish children into mass media.

Michael isn’t sure whether his father’s rejection of Judaism had to do with his childhood or whether his life as a philosopher simply made holding onto it untenable. Either way, Michael writes that he doesn’t even consider himself Jewish at this point, and he’s not sure if his father really did either.

What complicates that lack of identity is the way his father exists in the collective American Jewish memory. In “All the Answers,” Michael quotes from novels and poems by American Jews that characterize Joel as emblematic of first- or second- generation immigrants: deeply driven, intelligent and living in a country where they needed to perform to prove their worth to “real Americans.” Many people saw their generation of Jews embodied in Joel’s experience.

Michael seems to lay much of the blame for his father’s crushed childhood on Joel’s mother, and it’s hard to disagree given the mountain of evidence he provides. At one point, Joel more or less flees the country, studying at Cambridge, only to return to one more ill-fated dalliance with American quiz shows. Henry Ford, one of America’s greatest anti-Semites, seeks out Joel for a one-on-one conversation.

The story on its own would make a fascinating book, but so much is added by Michael’s drawing. The whole saga is delivered in the style of memory, half-remembered conversations and snapshots of situations both real and conjured, refusing to fit into a neat narrative. Michael’s interviews with his father take place in an otherworldly realm, rendered in dotted frames that take the conversation out of the physical and into the psychic. The slightest shading of an eyebrow, the leveling of a glare — the words on the page are invested with so much more meaning because of small artistic choices. Michael’s instinct for irony, so crucial to his comic work, has served him well here.

It also keeps him from pitying himself. He is able to distance himself from the story enough to know that “All the Answers” is really his father’s story, not his. Michael tells his father that guilt is a waste of time. The book is a testament to that belief.

Jesse Bernstein is a reporter for the Baltimore Jewish Times.

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