Fabulous Small Jews
Though plying his pen on the same turf, Joseph Epstein doesn't aim for the psychological fireworks or rhetorical razzle of Bellow, Malamud, or Roth. Instead, he opts for the seductively unassuming style that marks his prize-winning essays. Epstein's second story collection is a witty and often moving assortment of new tales of old Chicagoans. They play handball, enjoy the occasional schvitz, and, with names like Irv Brodsky and Moe Bernstein, are as Jewish as Chinese food on Sunday. Now in their dotage, they leisurely observe their final act as if it's being played out at Wrigley Field, wondering which club--cancer or heart disease--will win out. With Epstein behind the plate, the game often goes into extra innings, and with some surprising calls.
In "Felix Emeritus," a distinguished literary scholar and Holocaust survivor checks himself into an old-age home and discovers a Catskills-esque Buchenwald: "[I]n both places the population was all Jewish and thoughts of death dominated and concentrated the mind." At the home, Felix is captive to bad Jewish jokes, prune juice, and the Wagnerian social director, Miss Godkin, who patrols the halls with a walkie-talkie and "brutal cheer." "Don Juan Zimmerman" is a dedicated bachelor who amazes himself by courting the girl he never had the guts to ask to the prom. In both stories, the men discover a tenderness they had thought long extinguished by time, but redemption doesn't come without tragedy.
Epstein's best stories expand on the social critique he advanced in his 2002 book of essays, Snobbery: The American Version. He still has it in for the climbers, the vulgar materialists, and, most of all, for those who would deny their ethnicity in order to advance social or intellectual status. In "The Executor," Kenneth Hopkins is appointed literary executor of his idol, a celebrated poet and "white Jew" Princeton academic who leaves behind a sheaf of undiscovered poems. When Hopkins learns the truth about his hero, and that publication of the verses would irrevocably stain the reputation of the faithful widow, the literary executor becomes--literally--a literary executor, doing to his hero what Max Brod hadn't the heart to do to Kafka.
Whether portraying scrap-metal men or intellectual cognoscenti, Epstein's stories are written with erudition and everyday eloquence. Always a gentleman, he saves the best lines for his women: "A most strange tribe," observes one, "the men have a fetish for German motors and large, complicated wristwatches; possible talismanic meaning here. They enjoy rehearsing stories of their days as young warriors, though none of these stories has anything to do with war. Women of the tribe make grand expenditures on soft fabrics, dentistry; much talk of diets with contradictory passion for food, especially miniature vegetables. No actual love practices among the natives observed, though some evidence of sex in the head. United by religion though they are, it is less than clear what gods they worship." Amen.