Cantankerous Old Man Discovers Soft Spot

May 14, 2003 |

Fabulous Small Jews: Stories
By Joseph Epstein

352 pages. Houghton Mifflin. $23.

Jews have an age-old answer to snobbery. It’s called chutzpah. If some pretentious jerk looks down his nose at you because of the “-berg” at the end of your name or the Honda at the end of your driveway, Jewish wisdom teaches that you just give him the old stink-eye and tell him where he can shove his judgments. Mordecai Richler knew this, Alan Dershowitz knows it, and apparently Joseph Epstein knows it, too.

In his last book, Epstein tackled the subject of snobbery — both America’s and his own. With a new collection of short stories boldly titled “Fabulous Small Jews,” Epstein makes a not-unusual move for one who has spent too much time pondering all of his own little pieties: He says, in effect, “Screw it.” These stories, while acutely observed, funny and moving, can more generally be summed up as unapologetic.

Shamelessly, Epstein has steered his fiction into what must be acknowledged as Bellow territory: a land of curmudgeonly Chicago Jews in their 60s and 70s, guys named Manny Dubinsky and Artie Glick and Moe Bernstein. Few of them are happily married; all are grouchy and obsessed with death, divorce, loneliness and the scraps of meaning left in their lives. “Let’s face it,” a wiseguy named Lou Levine admits, kicking off one of the early stories, “we’re a pack of goddamn dinosaurs.”

Some of these “four-flushers” find solace in unusual relationships. In “A Loss for Words,” a formerly garrulous geezer with “failure-of-word-retrieval syndrome” befriends an arthritic ex-tennis champ. In “Don Juan Zimmerman,” a bachelor long past middle age finds love. The plot structure on repeated display here could best described as Cantankerous Old Man Discovers His Soft Spot.

This isn’t exactly the Depression-era Chicago of Bellow’s teenage years, but it’s not far off. For a writer, even one as prolific and successful as Epstein, to trespass like this on the firmly marked claim of one of America’s Nobel laureates and literary untouchables is the equivalent of a young boxer climbing into the ring with Mike Tyson.

Epstein comes out swinging, though he saves his most obvious jabs for the later stories. In one of these, “The Master’s Ring” — an homage to the tradition of adulation for Henry James — he goes straight for the gut. As the narrator is sweet-talking the widow of his mentor, a recently deceased literary scholar, he thinks, “If we were in a story by Bernard Malamud, Saul Bellow, or Philip Roth…this was when I would make my move on the widow.” Can the three greats of postwar American Jewish letters be reduced to a trio of perverts? Maybe, but it’s not exactly polite to say so.

Epstein doesn’t seem to care. His gloves are off. A story called “Postcards,” about a frustrated poet who mails poison-pen notes to literary celebrities, seems a flimsy excuse for Epstein to gleefully pour out a couple dozen pages of vitriol. Whether or not he shares the disdain of his protagonist, Hefferman, for the critics, conductors and feminists eviscerated here, Epstein clearly takes pleasure in the skewering. Roth, for instance, is described as a “novelist who, starting out as a chronicler of the miseries of contemporary Jewish life, had gone on to produce a pornographic bestseller, much cut-rate Kafka, and considerable diddling with the melding of autobiography and fiction” and who has “lately adopted the mode of high moral dudgeon.”

Reducing “The Counterlife” to “diddling” and “American Pastoral” to “dudgeon”? Now that’s chutzpah.

Some of Epstein’s satire comes as less of a shock, seeing as he’s a frequent contributor to the neoconservative party organ, Commentary. In “Freddy Duchamp in Action,” in which a Chicago author naively befriends an incarcerated criminal, Epstein treats us to a handful of stale digs at the panelists of an awful academic writing conference, including “an angry feminist, a young black poet who had recently become a Muslim, a middle-aged man dressed in black who taught queer theory at Northwestern, and the gray-ponytailed editor of a local literary quarterly that probably had more would-be contributors than subscribers.” The joke about the literary review is fair — and well-earned by Epstein, who also publishes stories in The Hudson Review and edited The American Scholar — but by the second time it is repeated in this collection, it has lost its zip. Anyone who has passed through a university lately will recognize the stereotypes, of course, but here they are milked for only a tiny droplet of comedy: The author who reluctantly joins the panel finds himself wishing he “had gone into the used car business.”

For the most part, though, this collection is populated by an endearing generation of alte cockers who, more often than not, achieve a modicum of happiness without sacrificing their crankiness, closed-mindedness or pessimism. Epstein’s fabulous small Jews discover the pleasures of chutzpah and of letting their guards down every now and again. It seems these may be lessons they learned from the author himself.

[Originally published in the Forward.]