Top critical review
Bellow it's not
on August 25, 2003
Fiction about old Jewish guys in Chicago is Saul Bellow territory, and to say that Joseph Epstein isn't Saul Bellow isn't fair criticism, because who is? But these stories don't do much for me. The characters are broad stereotypes, and the entire effect is labored -- too self-consciously clever.
But what really annoyed me was the constant name and place dropping, and meaningless detail. I live in Evanston, just like Prof. Epstein, but knowing that the retired European lit professor at Northwestern in the first story bought a cake for his sister at Tag's Bakery on Central Street, instead of, say, Judy's Bakery on Main, doesn't do much to establish atmosphere (especially for readers who aren't familiar with Evanston bakeries) or define his character, and of course adds nothing to the plot. Neither, for that matter, does Epstein's announcement that the man is gay, or at least was when he was young enough to have any kind of sex at all. The fact doesn't explain anything the character does, or thinks, or how others respond to him. It's just a trait that Epstein sticks on his character, coming up with a list that makes him seem distinctive (he's not just a Viennese Intellectual Holocaust Survivor; he's a Gay Viennese Intellectual Holocaust Survivor!)-- but in short fiction, especially, characters are defined by what they do or say, not by where the author tells us he bought dessert, or who the author tells us he used to have sex with.
I have the same complaint about the 38-year-old Catholic female lawyer who falls in love with the 57-year-old Jewish drycleaner. Leaving aside the implausibility of the lady's proffered explanation, which is that he's a nice guy and there aren't many of them out there (this may be so, but I still haven't noticed a whole bunch of talented and attractive women marrying balding old nebbishes who are way below them on the educational and job status scale), Epstein makes a point of telling us that she works a Sidley & Austin, an actual big downtown Chicago firm. Oh, THAT explains it. If she had worked at McDermott Will & Emery, who knows how things might have worked out.
The story that made me stop reading was the fourth, which features a stereotypical AK handball player (at the Bernard Horwich JCC, we are told unnecessarily) who reconsiders his decision not to have bypass surgery when he realizes that his scrawny, bedwetting eight-year-old grandson, whom our hero's nogoodnik son abandoned, might benefit from having his grandfather around. Leaving aside the question of why the old man didn't realize this about six years earlier, when Epstein tells us the son decamped for Seattle, and start spending more time with the boy then, this is sappy enough to be an episode of Touched By An Angel. The story ends with our crabby but lovable old guy eating pastrami at Manny's, another bit of superfluous local color. Also, why anyone, let alone a man who makes his living selling scales to delis, as we are told this guy does (we are even told the name of the scale company), would drive from Rogers Park to Roosevelt Road to eat at that overhyped dump is beyond me.