Saturday, August 7, 2010

The Love Song of A. Jerome Minkoff and other stories by Joseph Epstein

Joseph Epstein is one of my favourite writers. One of the under appreciated masters of American belles lettres. Even as his fiction and essays have appeared in every major magazine and newspaper and his non-fiction books have been NY Times bestsellers, one has the sense that Epstein is a bit of a throwback, and might have achieved the recognition he truly deserved had his work appeared twenty years earlier when books were more central to American culture. Epstein is no flavour of the month sort of writer. He writes crafted, crisp, clearly-thought-out prose; no flower and very little sentimentality, in fact, he has a bitter aversion to the pretension of artsiness. His chosen subject matter is often Chicago Jewish males, and in the case of this new collection, men about the author's age, in the third act of life. It's very much Saul Bellow territory and one may wonder why Epstein has never written a novel, though guesses are easy to hazard. For one thing the novel is a 'messy' form (Mordecai Richler, when asked why he wrote novels instead of poetry or short-fiction, famously said that novels left a lot of room for error.) For Epstein, it is apparent from his prose, that any 'messiness' would be intolerable. Another reason may be that novels about Chicago Jewish men of a certain age and ilk are Bellow territory, and he's smart enough to know that it would be unwise to cross that boundary and risk being compared to his illustrious predecessor novelist. It's too bad really because I think Epstein's work would stand up quite well. His doesn't have Bellow's penchant for excess (over-thinking, over-writing, over-indulging.) An Epstein novel, I believe, would be tight and satisfying, perhaps even surpassing Bellow's late period novellas. I know this is pure speculation but the economy and humour of Epstein's prose allows him to manage in a few words and sentences what it often took Bellow pages to describe. For example, in the story "Bartlestein's First Fling" about a man in the plumbing supply business who flirts with the possibility of living a life of passion for the first time, Epstein writes, of the protagonist, "He found the Lexus to be the perfect car for him: dependable, not too showy, efficient, quietly luxurious. He has himself become a kind of human Lexus." In another story, Epstein says of a businessman, "he laughed a lot but I never saw him smile." The comparisons with Bellow, admittedly unfair, are inevitable. It may be why I read the modus operandi in "My Brother Eli" as Epstein's response to what Bellow himself was known for; writing family and friends into his fiction, particularly as a way of humiliating ex-wives. Eli is a Bellow-like character, a novelist, winner of every major literary prize, the toast of Chicago and the literary world, married multiple times, irredeemably self-centered, indulgent and miserable despite his 'success'. Eli keeps getting bailed out by his older brother Lou an auto parts salesman and narrator of the story. When he reads Eli's novels, Lou can't make heads or tails of them, "I had to drag my eyes across every page, thinking who could possibly give a damn about all this. So the hero of the books is sensitive, and the people he is forced to live among aren't. I didn't see the big deal." Epstein mostly sides with the uneducated, the uncultured, and the stalwart. He has genuine affinity for hard-scrabble, hard working, self-made men, particularly those who came of age with WWII, and who might have skipped university in favour of building lives for themselves and their families; men who sought and achieved a quietly noble existence. In the collection's exquisite coda "Kuperman Awaits Ecstasy" one such man is introduced to the pleasures of classical music by a dying woman while providing the ideal companionship to her in the last stage of her life. Every story in this collection seems to be about the search for dignity, which arrives, often unexpectedly, in the form of a gift from a relationship between two complete opposites. In "Beyond the Pale" that relationship is first between a boy and his grandfather who teaches his grandson to read Yiddish. Later, the boy, now a young man and literary editor, becomes the last hope to rescue from oblivion the reputation of a famous Yiddish novelist. As I said, Epstein is a superb craftsman of character whose prose are diamond-cut, hard and precise, not a word wasted. Where his stories tend to lack is their endings. They fizzle out instead of crackle-pop. And maybe that's another reason why Epstein has avoided the novel, plot is not his strong suit. One ending that does provide the required punch is "You Could Also Love a Rich Girl" which closes with a Vaudeville-style zinger.

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