Like his namesake, Lemuel Gulliver, Lem Grosz, the central character, sees a fair bit of the world, and it is a very odd sort of place. Leaving home at 15, Lem travels from New York to Los Angeles, where he becomes a flagpole sitter and unsuccessfully tries to "shed his humanness." Returning to New York a decade later, Lem finds a home (and begins an affair) with divorcee Connie White; he (mistakenly) thinks he has found his half-sister Lucy in a masseuse named Lucia Lamour; and he is astonished to come home one day and find Connie in bed with Lucy. Lem hits the road again, this time as a courier. During a mysterious assignment in Prague, where, for reasons not fully explained, one John Swift tries to kill him off but fails, dying in the attempt. Lem jets back to New York, where no one expresses any surprise when he takes over John Swift's life: name, wife, child, and job. Spielberg's tale tries to be whimsical in a darkly satirical way but never loses its air of studied eccentricity: the author, who needs wings of gossamer to pull this one off, seems mainly to have feet of clay.
"Picaresque tale somewhat in the manner of Swift's Gulliver's Travels, by the author of The Hermetic Whore (1977) and Crash-Landing (1985). Running from the fearful wrong he feels he's done his half-sister Lucy, young Lemuel Grosz ponders his options and goes on the road. Spielberg offers a short tribute to Jack Kerouac as Lemuel grows up; there's a nice scene at the Grand Canyon. Now hailing as Mel, Lem returns to Manhattan and takes up with his landlady Connie, but what might have happened to Lucy still troubles him. So he hires a private detective who assembles an admirable dossier on the wrong Lucy. This Lucy is a masseuse, whom Lem invites to live with him as his long-lost sister. She promptly seduces Connie, sending poor Lem on the road again, abroad this time. Meanwhile, we drop in on the true Lucy, happily married in a gentrified section of Brooklyn, untroubled, unconcerned about Lem. The plot meanders through the rest of Lem's life, when at last he learns the truth about Lucy. The truth is slippery, comes in several versions, and doesn't change anything. Spielberg's mock solemnity is often amusing, particularly as it concerns Lem's sexual innocence, but perhaps the most original effect here is implied in the title: All the scenes are written as if heard secondhand or recalled after the fact. Even Spielberg's US, for instance, is a distant country, as if the account had been translated several times from the original description." —Kirkus
For young Lemuel the day began with the buzzing of a fly. It woke him from the best sleep—silent, blank, faceless—the kind that adults long but few, if any, recapture. The boy turned onto his backand squinted at the strip of flypaper hanging from the ceiling light fixture. The yellow ribbon, which Grandma Groscz had put up because flies breed on dung and spread disease, twisted as if it had a life of its own.
Stinking fly, Lem thought, as bad as the alarm clock whose burr pierced the plaster wall like a dentist's drill. It took his stepfather forever to extend a paw and slap the stupid alarm into silence. After that Lem could count on another ten minutes to snooze before his mother came to roust him, tootling her cheery: "Rise and shine!" He always pretended to be fast asleep, pretended he hadn't heard.
The fly's buzzing, angry, demanding, was worse than the alarm. It came out of nowhere.
There it was again! PPPRRRzzzppRRRZZZ--a volley of R's and P's and Z's, intensifying, fading to a hum, rising to full force.
His attempt to transliterate the buzz of the snared fly to the English alphabet made him think of Sunday school. Written Hebrew, the teacher had told the class, uses no vowels: "G_d's shorthand, so to speak. It saved Moses on the Mount time and trouble, but caused all kinds for the rest of us. Scholars have been wrestling with the words ever since, arguing over the accuracy of this or that translation of Holy Scripture."
Lem, an impressionable child, envisioned the mysterious yellowed scroll—an endless string of consonants over which wizened rabbis bent, each chanting a different version of the text. Magic incantations. Lem's step-grand-mother mumbling as she circumcised a fresh loaf of rye bread or pulled a loose tooth from his mouth: "Hocuspocus minimocus. Abracadabara. Eins-zwei-drei!" But the long-bearded elders were afetr forbidden knowledge, seeking to decode the very secrets of nature.
Foxy, Lem's best friend, had not been impressed. "4 Q" he whispered. "That means up yours." Monday morning at the P.S. assembly, he passed arounf his "Hebe" transcription of America. Standing at attention, right hand over hearts, he and his fellow first-graders shrieked: "MCNTRTSFTH/SWTLNDFLBRT..."