The Love Song of A. Jerome Minkoff
By Joseph Epstein
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 256 pages, $24)
Robert Frost, through the unlikely agency of a humble ovenbird, asks what to make of a diminished thing. In his latest collection of short stories, Joseph Epstein gets at the same question with very readable results.
As in his previous story collections, The Goldin Boys (1991) and Fabulous Small Jews (2003), Epstein deals deftly, sometimes beautifully, often humorously, with the questions of the late years of life: the matter of summing up, parsing the place of work and money in life, and dealing with the regrets and such yearnings as still exist. What of love? And of course, facing the inevitability of going end-of-watch.
These are more consequential questions than, Do I dare eat a peach? A question from another love song. Epstein deals intelligently with subjects many who've left 65 in the rear-view mirror avoid. But he does it without the angst, ideology, and ponderousness that often mar today's literary fiction. These stories aren't downers. Nothing obscure or minimalist about them either.
Suspension of disbelief is no challenge in Epstein's stories. His characters have the feel of real life, and readers enter easily into their lives. Epstein may have been a professor for 30 years. But he doesn't write like one. In fact, in stories like Casualty, Gladrags & Kicks, The Philosopher and the Checkout Girl, and Janet Natalsky and the Life of Art, academe, the arts industry, and culture vultures take a well-deserved and often humorous hiding.
Most of the characters in Love Song are well-educated, well-off Jews living in or around Chicago who are old enough to remember the Big-Band era. Some, like Maury Gordon, a favorite of mine, may have known the boogey-woogey bugle boy personally. But the universality of Epstein's themes makes the thinness of his demographic unimportant. This Southern generic Protestant has no trouble getting it. Epstein, 73 and a resident of Chicago or Evanston most of his life, is just using people he's come to know well to demonstrate what he's learned of the human heart.
The title character, A. Jerome Minkoff, is an ordinary, hard-working Chicago GP, lucky in young love. The luck runs out when Dr. Minkoff's wife dies of ALS at 58. Three years into widower-hood, the loss softened by his medical practice which sustains Minkoff as much as it does his patients, he finds himself, almost through no action of his own, in a whirlwind affair, somewhat short of a romance, with an assertive and incomprehensively rich California woman.
The near constant whirl of operas and trendy shows, of expensive restaurants with glitzy friends (hers) both in Chicago and Brentwood, propels Minkoff to think about the proper place of $650 dinners and touring, top-down, in his new lady's blue Maserati, as against helping Maury Gordon in his terminal illness. It also puts in clear relief his late wife's diagnosis of California after their visits. Too thin, she declared it. (Sorry California. But there it is.)
In The Philosopher and the Checkout Girl, retired philosophy professor Howard Salzman, another aging widower, learns to count the abstractions he's spent a lifetime wrestling with for less than the concrete, irony-free pleasures his new friend from Dominick's supermarket provides him. She's his ticket back into life from the arid remove of his intellectual career.
These and the 12 other stories in Minkoff, most of which appeared first in Commentary, bring the rewards that readers have enjoyed in Epstein's previous stories and in his vast body of nonfiction work: the telling detail, the subtle insight, the not-so-subtle punch line, the spot-on description, the learned aside.
Epstein's essays, that treat subjects from the highly serious to the trifling with consistent charm, have appeared in Commentary, the Wall Street Journal, Weekly Standard, Atlantic, Hudson Review, New Yorker, et al., and in collections with names like A Line Out for a Walk, Narcissus Leaves the Pool, and In a Cardboard Belt. Those, like me, who claim Epstein is the finest essayist working today, get little argument. Among his 22 books he also treats single subjects, including, Friendship: An Exposé, and Snobbery: The American Version.
I don't know if Epstein cottons to conservative as a label to describe himself. Though if you're looking for an endorsement from a major hitter from the right side, the late William F. Buckley Jr., in his review of Snobbery, called Epstein the wittiest writer alive. Not too shabby. WFB Jr. knew from witty.
Epstein writes almost nothing about the daily grub of politics, but concentrates on the important, non-political stuff that falls, in his words, out of the news cycle. His approach to life as demonstrated in his writing is consistent with the conservative mind-set. He takes life pretty much as he finds it, and delights in its richness, complexity, and general hilarity. He's suspicious of Big Ideas and of people with systems who want to run our lives. He can spot humbuggery at a thousand yards, and he and his readers have a good deal of fun at the expense of fools and foolishness. TAS readers should find all of this simpatico.
There's a kind of intellectual itch that only good fiction can scratch. A. Jerome Minkoff qualifies as good fiction in a period when it's hard to find new fiction that repays readers' time. It's a book to read. And Joseph Epstein a byline to seek out.