I don’t read fiction, but I do read the one-and-only master essayist Joseph Epstein, which means every now and then, when Epstein comes out with a new collection of short stories, I pony up and offend my principles and then spend some time in his (barely) fictional world of Jewish men, most of whom have some connection to the world of publishing. And I never put one of his stories down disappointed; truth to tell, I love each of his stories. I’ve read two collections already, and now comes the third: The Love Song of A. Jerome Minkoff: And Other Stories
Not only do I not read much fiction, I never review fiction. So, I’m not sure what to say but the following thoughts come to mind:
Epstein is a master craftsman with words. He finds the right word at the right time, like the female character who “had a wonderful knack for matching unpredictable colors” or this deadly insult at the expense of someone who “published poetry in magazines with more contributors than subscribers.”
His characters are unforgettable and so believable I wonder if he’s telling the story of someone he actually knows but shades it a bit here and there so he can call it fiction. If I hung out in Evanston or Skokie I suspect I’d find some of the characters in this book. Surely I would find Buddy and Linda and Weinstein and his wife Elaine, and somehow Jerry Mandel who, as a high schooler, dreamed of becoming a tennis player, will be sitting in the deli talking to old friends. Dreams in professional sports are as real as high school boys. And how could I forget the insufferably demanding Gerda Belzner, second wife of the great Yiddish writer, Zalman Belzner.
His plots … well, here’s the rub with Epstein: this is no happy-ending writer with an eschatology that makes all things work out just right. You don’t finish a story and say “I’m happy to be alive.” Instead, you say, “Life isn’t always fair but it’s what we’ve got.” He can have a 70 yr old man lose his wife and find a new woman with lots of money and, just when you think the guy is about to say “yes,” he says “no” and he goes back to his job and the story is over and you know Epstein’s irony runs deep. Life is what it is, not what we want it to be.
Like Howard Salzman, an analytic philosopher whose wife dies and leaves him to fend for himself, which he doesn’t do all that well until he meets Irene, also a Jew but divorced … same condition. And after all those years of objective examination of life Irene invites him into the real world and it appears this time he’ll take the step. And the story ends.
There are two exceptions: Kuperman, an elderly widower, finds a younger Judith Neeley who, as it turns out, has cancer. She introduces him to highfalutin’ music, which baffles him, until the end — she dies and he speaks at the funeral home and he begins to hear Mozart and is transported into ecstasy.
One underlying theme of his plots, which touches on either meaning or eschatology, is the law of blessings: the story of Eli Black, “My Brother Eli,” could be seen as a near-perfect example of the deuteronomic principle: you get what you deserve or you sins will come back to haunt you.
Epstein’s plots are organic and so natural they mirror the reality of real Jewish men and their families on Chicago’s north shore and into the suburbs north. One is in NYC but otherwise we’ve got Chicago stories.
In this collection of stories I had to wonder if “No Good Deed,” a story about a Jewish big time trader and a Muslim homeless man, was going to map the path of rapprochement but, with a strange turn of events, the plot became the same-old conflict. It ends with “Malik will not go away.” Wow, I thought … a bit harsh or was it hardened reality?