Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Fabulous, Small Jews

Fabulous Small Jews, by Joseph Epstein, is a poignant collection of short stories set in Chicago. It is his second collection, published in 2003. Epstein is best known for his essay collections such as Friendship: The Expose (2006), Snobbery: The American Version (2002) and Gossip: No Trivial Matter (2011). He is the former editor of The American Scholar and a regular contributor to such journals as Commentary and The Weekly Standard.

His essays are often conservative polemics with a good dose of sarcasm and wit. Given that, it is not surprising that the fictional protagonists in this collection are conventional, middle class bachelors, divorces or widowers, many of whom are basking in the successes of their youth.

The book takes its title from lines in a Karl Shapiro poem, "Hospital:" This is the Oxford of all sicknesses/Kings have lain here and fabulous small Jews/And actresses whose legs were always news. In her review of the book, Professor Daryn Glassbrook writes, "It is this emblematic image from Shapiro, equal parts irony and nostalgia, which clearly stands as the dominant motif of the collection." (Shofar: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Jewish Studies, Volume 23, Number 4m Summer 2005, pp. 139-142)

One of the most poignant of the short stories is "A Loss for Words." It details the relationship of a father and son as the father sinks into dementia. Although the opening story, "Felix Emeritus" also takes place in a nursing home, this one captures the pathos as none other. "It's an elephant graveyard (p. 271)," he tells his son. The father later befriends a former tennis champion, now suffering from Parkinson's. This kind man, who can no longer hold a fork, once won medals and played against the greats. While the father cuts this man's food, he finishes the dad's sentences. They become an inseparable couple. The conclusion of this story is a testament to friendship and familial love. Old age is depicted unsparingly, taking from us the very essence of our individuality.

Although many of the stories explore life's sad ironies, others end with a surprising twist. "Artie Glick in a Family Way" highlights a May-September romance in which the protagonist comes to terms with his neuroses and tosses caution to the wind. In "Moe," a man initially declines life-saving surgery only to learn that love comes with responsibilities, not least of all to oneself.

"The Executor," "Postcards," and "Freddy Duchamp in Action" all have writers as their protagonists and all use irony magnificently. To analyze these stories on paper would be to give away their endings. Let it be said that Epstein's insights into the human psyche reveal the wisdom of his own years as well as a writer's keen sensitivity.

Fabulous Small Jews is a well-crafted collection in the spirit of Philip Roth or Saul Bellow. The characters Epstein draws are identifiable-- straight out of West Rogers Park when The Bagel, Rosenblum's Bookstore and kosher meat markets dotted Devon Avenue.

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