June 2006

Allan Appel

fiction

What We Deserved: Stories from a New York Life by Steven Schrader

In What We Deserved, these tales of a New York City childhood, marriage, and writing life, Steven Schrader, an underappreciated and little known Manhattan literary stylist, speaks to us in a voice like no other. The author’s understatement can be so droll you don’t know if he’s mimicking an underdeveloped high school paper or slyly achieving the powerful irony of an Upper West Side Kafka.

In some sixty or seventy vignettes, few of which exceed two pages, and many that finish with room to spare at the bottom of one, Schrader covers a wide swath of human experience ranging from his first cigarette and his first removal of a girl’s brassiere to the hollow experience of a Yom Kippur service in Washington Heights, and the agony and the very infrequent ecstasy of trying to find a partner in life.

In one of the most revealing stories of the writer’s craft, we see how a Yeshiva University course, which Schrader enrolls in to help his teaching, does precious little to advance the students’ skill but enables our author to overcome writer’s block and chart new directions in his style, including the unmediated and unaffected current of truth-telling that gives these tales there low-keyed electricity.

One of this reviewer’s favorites is witnessing the “stretching” of Paul Lansky, son of the gangster Meyer, in a 57th Street gymnasium in the 1950s, so he can be tall enough to get into West Point. However, by far the most powerful figures that emerge here are Schrader’s very much larger than life parents. Dominating many of the narratives is an imposing father who looms over the son and whose success in the rag trade leads to neglect of the depressed wife and mom. Her wellbeing becomes one of the tragic motifs the author carries through life and into a poignant prose, whose locales -- cafeterias, department stores, hotels and synagogues now long gone -- constitute a kind of literary walking tour of Manhattan of the last half century.

Although Schrader terms his work a collection of autobiographical sketches and relies, he says (with refreshing modesty), on a kind of shuffling or re-arranging of the tales for an effect of fictional collage, there is something different and, in my view, unique going on here. Without theatrics or hyperbole, and with a dogged pursuit of the materials of memory so unobtrusively intense that it transforms them into art, these tales have an effect different from interconnected stories. They don’t so much achieve illumination as hover, persist, and haunt. One leaves the reading puzzling over how much significance a pair of the father’s fifty-year old shoes can bear, or how chance meetings with Philip Roth can call into question the value of a writing life. Buzzing over the anxiety of love and parenthood like a persistent Jewish bee, that might deliver honey or a bite, themes recur, the same yet different, as if to say, This is really the way life is turning out. That’s right, my friend, and if you don’t believe it this time, well, let me show you another!

Occasionally, when the material lacks urgency, a story will flop, or not strike the desire note despite the brevity and form. The cumulative feeling is a kind of full Robbe Grillet-esque reconnaissance of a life, an album of affecting snapshots written with prose that is laid back but also always on its toes and achieving its effects through the accumulation of small fictional units. These can be like finger food, candy, or chips where you need to read another and another; by my calculation, a Schrader story takes exactly the amount of time it takes to get through two subway stops, say, from 96th to 79th. It is as if another human being has rapidly told you everything he possibly could, over such a subway ride or a cup of tea -- a life so particular, so Manhattan, so Jewish, so garment district, so privileged yet so impoverished and so full of longing, it belongs to all of us.

What We Deserved: Stories from a New York Life by Steven Schrader
Hanging Loose Press
ISBN: 1931236631
197 Pages