Wind Sprints: Shorter Essays
By Joseph Epstein
(Axios, 608 pages, $24)
Frozen in Time: Twenty Stories
By Joseph Epstein
(Taylor Trade Publishing, 273 pages, $22.95)
Like Auden’s old Masters, T.S. Eliot got a lot of things right. But he was wrong to slander April, so welcome in snowy climes, and to fans of baseball, the return of which we celebrate this month. For discerning readers, this April will be distinctly un-cruel, for they can enjoy not one but two new offerings from the elegant Chicago writer, Joseph Epstein.
It has long been implausible to argue that there’s a more engaging essayist on the planet than Epstein. And his insightful stories of the conflicts, yearnings, triumphs, tragedies, and inanities of contemporary urban life make him one of our best short-story writers as well. The short essays in Wind Sprints, and the stories in Frozen in Time, are of the quality of his previous work that led the late William F. Buckley Jr. to refer to Epstein as the wittiest writer alive. Pretty authoritative. Buckley surely knew from witty.
And Epstein’s wit comes without the overlay of snarky irony that mars the work of many. He’s learned how to maintain a bit of detachment from his subjects without adopting a superior tone. Without being patronizing. In this regard he’s the un-Gore Vidal.
“Simply to give pleasure at a fairly high intellectual level makes my day,” Epstein told an Atlantic interviewer in 1999.
Clearly Epstein has had many satisfying days, as have his readers, during his long writing career. And with Epstein it is intellectual without tears. No academic obscurity, no laboring or pomposity, no wrestling an idea to the ground, no tendentious advocacy, political or otherwise. Few writers in any age have so deftly married the intellectual and erudite to the entertaining and down-to earth, the literary to the day-to-day, life’s big questions to its simple pleasures. If the many precincts of the Vanity Fair we call life hold fascination for you, so will Joseph Epstein’s writing.
Epstein can charm at any length, from single-subject books — see Snobbery, Gossip, Envy, et al. — through essays and stories of a few thousand words — Biography, Narcissus Leaves the Pool, The Love Song of A. Jerome Mikoff. He can even engage readers in the 800- to 1000-word column, as his latest book (of 28) demonstrates.
“Leave ’em laughing,” as the show-biz phrase goes, a warning against banging on too long. Au the contraire, some will finish the short pieces in the aptly named Wind Sprints finding themselves wanting a bit more, wishing that Epstein had a little more room to play with a subject that is just starting to roll. But even though in these items Epstein must rein in his usual discursiveness to meet word limits, as a boxer might skip desserts to make weight, readers will find in these shorts — which appeared between 1996 and 2015 in such as the Atlantic, the Wall Street Journal, London’s Daily Telegraph, and the Weekly Standard — the same pleasures as are available in Epstein’s longer work. There’s the charm, the acute observations, the accessible erudition, the larger insight culled from a small matter, and not least, the laugh line that can come at any time.
The range of subjects that captures Epstein’s attention, and the way he can make any of these matters of interest to readers, is truly remarkable. There are 143 pieces in Sprints, with almost no repetition of subject. Perhaps because of the length of these pieces, Epstein takes on fewer literary questions and deals with more small, quotidian matters, though in ways to demonstrate that almost anything can be dealt with intelligently, and in an entertaining way.
In Wind Sprints readers can enjoy Epstein’s defense of the humble hotdog, learn about the joys and uses of early rising (which will remain for me — a confirmed night owl — abstract pleasures), learn why he finally cut the New York Times loose, hear his harrumphs about annoying and vogue neologisms that creep into the language and are overworked for a time, enjoy the sheer variety and eccentricity of vanity license plates and bumper strips, learn how he narrowly missed coming by a chair once used by philosopher George Santayana, and sample a couple of charming pieces on life with the Epstein cat, Hermione, which even folks who don’t fancy cats can enjoy.
There are a few literary pieces, including a nice appreciation of the late Jacques Barzun, whom Epstein was privileged to know. Barzun was another academic, who like Epstein, never wrote like a professor for a day in his life. There’s a sendup of university English department parties (Epstein taught literature and writing at Northwestern for almost 30 years), and a confessional piece on how Epstein has, reading in progress, more than a dozen books with book-marks in them about chez Epstein. He also confesses to being a language snob in a piece where he beefs about imprecise word use. Damn it, difference and differential don’t mean the same thing, which Epstein clarifies at the expense of basketball announcer Marv Albert.
Epstein can even make grumpiness fun. In one of my favorite of these pieces, “Mr. Epstein Regrets,” he shares with readers his list of people who shouldn’t expect an invitation to lunch with him. Those left out of Epstein’s social plans include Roger Clemons, Donald Trump (prescient, this piece was written in 2001), Jack Valenti, Shirley MacLaine, Howell Raines, and Barbara Walters. It has never occurred to me to devise such a list of my own, but if I ever do there will be considerable overlap with Epstein’s list of undesirable lunch companions.
The pieces in Frozen continue Epstein’s chronicling of the struggles of mostly upper-middle class Jews in Chicago that he began in previous story collections: The Goldin Boys (1991), Fabulous Small Jews (2003), and The Love Song of A. Jerome Minkoff (2010). But don’t let the thinness of Epstein’s demographic put you off. His themes and insights are universal, and his humor is for all time. This Southern, generic Protestant gets it. You will too. Dealing with work, love, aging, and the various blessings and betrayals of life, engage us all. Epstein’s characters do this with the feel of real life.
In Frozen we meet several characters whose early lives demanded little of them, and they’ve not turned out the better for it. One is the engaging but hollow Uncle Harry, in “Wild About Harry,” whom life treated much too generously early on. A victim of too much love in the home, and elsewhere. He demonstrates how with people, as with contracts, one should always read the small print.
In “Arnheim and Son,” we learn that some blood is thicker than other blood. In “Adultery” we see a man suffer way too long over a question that should have lost its importance to him. In “The Viagra Triangle,” (great title!) we’re treated to another iteration of the foolishness and just deserts of old men who pursue young women. In “The Man on Whom Everything Was Lost,” generosity and patience beyond the call of duty are rewarded with betrayal. In “Remittance Man,” a son who is very different from his father gets his inheritance early. All very fine stuff.
Back to the essays. In “Stop and Smell the Prose,” another favorite from Sprints, Epstein puts up a good case for slow reading over fast. What’s the rush, if the writing is good?
“Slow reading seems to me a good idea, at least when the reading matter is stylish and substantial. Like any sensual experience, it ought to be attended to in a carefully paced and thoughtful way…. Reading is that rare satisfaction, a pleasure that is deep yet happily harmless. While we are doing it we are taken out of ourselves… why rush it? Why miss the music?”
Why indeed? There is a good deal of fine, slow music in these elegant sprints and stories from Joseph Epstein. As there is in Epstein’s other books, most of which are still available, and still repay the reading time.