April 2004

Michael Schaub

fiction

Fabulous Small Jews by Joseph Epstein

Not long ago, Joseph Epstein made a brief splash with a book called Snobbery: The American Version, which appealed to the branch of the reading public that also went crazy for breezy, self-aware nonfiction like Bobos in Paradise and whatever tongue-in-cheek rich white guy NPR is talking about now. Before Snobbery, Epstein was chiefly famous for his twenty-two-year stint as editor of The American Scholar -- and an unfortunate 1970 Harper's article that struck many as homophobic (perhaps due to his stated desire to "wish homosexuality off the face of this earth"). In his over thirty years of journalism and fiction, Epstein has come to occupy the role of "cultural critic," a job as ill-defined as it is, let's face it, unnecessary. Cultural critics don't often make good fiction writers. Joseph Epstein is a good fiction writer, but if Fabulous Small Jews is any indication, he's just good -- polite, unexceptional, sometimes boring, but something above average. The problem with this book is that the nicest thing you can say about it still sounds like damning with faint praise.

It's never a good idea to start a short story collection with your weakest story, and the opener to Fabulous Small Jews is unquestionably among the weakest in the book. The title character to "Felix Emeritus" (properly, Professor Felix Arnstein) is a retired literature professor reluctantly adjusting to life in an assisted-living facility. We're informed that Felix is gay in the clumsiest way possible ("...Felix's secondary exile had to do with his homosexuality. It was something with which he had long ago learned to live"), and it never comes up again. Actually, not much comes up from then on -- it's a stubbornly pointless story, though you wonder if Epstein considers it a sort of overture. It delivers on the "small Jews" part of the title, though Felix is more blank than fabulous.

Some of the following stories show a real spark, though. "A Loss for Words" is touching and effective, and presents the best argument that Epstein fares best when his stories are short. Inasmuch as these stories are character sketches, some are well-executed. The feckless protagonist of "Saturday Afternoon at the Zoo with Dad" is a depressing, sort of callous father, and Epstein portrays him with something like sympathy, though he manages to do so without making excuses. He nearly hits it home with "The Third Mrs. Kessler," but loses it with a patronizing tone that suggests the problem with women is that they don't listen to men. For those readers who didn't realize that there was a problem with women to begin with, Epstein's somewhat antiquated observations are more than a little jarring. "The Executor" is interesting, but it's a transparent Philip Roth rip-off -- and Epstein isn't quite good enough to imitate Roth and have it come off as anything more than a sweet, if slight, homage.

The best story in the collection comes towards the end. "Postcards" demonstrates that Epstein has a knack for the epistolary story -- although this isn't epistolary in the purest sense. It helps that the plot is original and inventive: A failed poet sends anonymous postcards to critics and academics who have somehow annoyed him. (You wonder how many such postcards and letters Epstein received after his gay-baiting article in Harper's thirty years ago.) The least impressive entry here is "Artie Glick in a Family Way," an utterly unconvincing story of a May-December romance, and an older man's increasingly contentious relationship with his psychotherapist. It's just as interesting as it sounds.

Perhaps the biggest problem with Fabulous Small Jews is that Epstein isn't able to translate the affection he seems to feel for his characters to the page. His stories can come across as cold, distant, condescending -- you might say "professorial" -- to his characters. (This is most apparent when Epstein attempts to write about blue collar workers; if he has much experience outside the academic world, it must have been a long time ago.) Epstein seems to know quite a bit about people -- you don't become a cultural critic without redoubtable credentials, I'm sure -- but where individual persons are concerned, he evinces no special expertise. The stories in this collection -- even the good ones -- are practiced but come off as bloodless, dispassionate.

Fabulous Small Jews is a two-hour movie that needed to be a thirty-minute television show, a full-length album that should have been an EP. Epstein is a good fiction writer; he's by no means great. But you get the feeling that he knows this, that fiction is a hobby for him. That's not uncommon for academics, many of whom have flirted with dilettantism at least once in their careers. You have to wonder if this book would have been published if Snobbery hadn't made such a big splash; Epstein's previous stab at fiction, The Goldin Boys is currently out of print. But there are worse ways to spend your time than with these stories -- and sure, that's damning with faint praise, but as long as Epstein has his tenure and NPR still has a listening audience, I'm sure he-ll be fine.

Fabulous Small Jews by Joseph Epstein
Houghton Mifflin
ISBN: 0395944023
352 Pages