An Elegant 10/10

May 29, 2003 |

The Middle of the Night: Stories
By Daniel Stolar
Picador. 244 pages. $23.

When Olympic judges score divers and figure skaters, they award points based on the level of difficulty of the routine. I propose that the same concept be applied to our judging of fiction, with a reverse twist: Whereas in athletics high levels of difficulty are associated with flashy eye-catching spins and leaps, in fiction it is the sedate writers who deserve bonus points.

If you’re willing to accept this judging system, allow me to introduce you to a writer who scores an elegant 10 out of 10. Daniel Stolar’s stories, collected in The Middle of the Night, are not at all flashy, but in their quiet understanding of human relations they achieve admirable emotional effects. These tales are weighty without being dull, and as rich as novels but short enough to read in one sitting. Best of all, as a reader of Stolar’s stories you’ll never feel like you’re at the literary equivalent of a circus—yet you’ll be thoroughly entertained.

The fact that Stolar’s stories are subtle doesn’t mean he shrinks from complex conflicts. Quite the opposite: his stories are long and ambitious. “Crossing Over” tackles the relationships between Jews and African-Americans, both in Stolar’s hometown of St. Louis and in Boston, where the author was educated. The narrator of the story is the son of two local politicians and committed liberals who have stayed on in urban St. Louis after most other Jews have fled to the suburbs. A sensitive high schooler, the narrator waits tables at a nearby restaurant and, despite the prejudice he sees in his family, he finds himself fitting in with the African-American kitchen workers. They invite him to play late night basketball in a bad area of town, and they call him by the same names they use for themselves, “Dawg” or “Nigga.”

When he arrives in Boston for college and finds himself adrift, he is drawn toward an African-American fraternity. In his attempts to gain acceptance among this group of educationally privileged Harvard and MIT blacks, he is surprised to discover that despite the depth of his familiarity with authentic African-American culture—“I could be as black as I wanted to be,” he thinks—the fraternity brothers would ultimately rather not have him around. As Bernard Malamud does in his classic story on this subject, “Black is My Favorite Color,” Stolar exhibits the tensions between the two groups not in the violent conflicts that arise in extremist neighborhoods like Crown Heights, but rather in the frustrated desire of an individual to connect. The effect is stunning.

The last story of Stolar’s collection, “Mourning,” similarly places its Jewish protagonist, Matthew Hesch, in contact with a tempting but ultimately elusive social group. In this case, the social variable is class, not race. Matthew is a Harvard student, floundering in his classes after his mother’s death, and is coached through finals by a classmate named Tim. Their fast friendship is disrupted, in Matthew’s mind at least, when he discovers that Tim is a member of an exclusive men’s club and refuses to admit it. The two friends become coworkers after graduation, and maintain a friendship over many years, but Tim’s club membership, and his deception surrounding it, remains an invisible boundary between them. The story isn’t about the way Jews are excluded from prestigious social organizations (which, thankfully, isn’t true at Harvard anymore); rather it’s about the resilience of class divisions and the heartbreaking reality that two men can be the best of friends and never open themselves to each other honestly.

These are just two examples of the challenges Stolar sets for himself. In “Home in New Hampshire,” his subject is the way a woman’s physical handicap contributes to her husband’s infidelity: not exactly a piece of cake, either. Throughout the collection, Stolar writes expertly about fathers and sons, husbands and wives. An elderly father struggles in his attempts to connect to his teenage son; a high school reunion leads to feelings of regret; in each tale, Stolar handles his subjects sensitively and perceptively.

Among the debut novels and first collections of short stories vying for the public’s attention with promises of newness and $100,000 advertising campaigns, The Middle of the Night may—like so many deserving, subtle books—disappear before finding its readership. That would be a tragedy. This quiet book deserves to be read and celebrated.

[Originally published on]