My Friends and Me


By Steven G. Kellman

Published July 07, 2006, issue of July 07, 2006.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Friendship: An Exposé

By Joseph Epstein

Houghton Mifflin, 288 pages, $24.

‘What really knocks me out,” Holden Caulfield says in “The Catcher in the Rye,” “is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it.”

The most amiable of essayists, Joseph Epstein, writes books that would send many sprinting to their telephones — though, as he reveals in his latest, “Friendship: An Exposé,” he screens out supplicants by using caller ID. In some of his earlier works, “Ambition,” “Snobbery” and “Envy,” Epstein established his credentials as a maven of three key impediments to friendship. In this, his 17th book, he now takes on the thing itself, which he defines as “affection, variously based on common interests, a common past, common values, and, alas, sometimes common enemies, in each case leading to delight and contentment in one another’s company.”

Epstein makes frequent reference to Aristotle, Cicero, Montaigne and Samuel Johnson, but laments the lack of a definitive study of his subject. Outlining what a history of friendship might be, he notes that, aside from Jonathan-David and Ruth-Naomi, the Hebrew Bible scants examples of friends. With Damon and Pythias, Orestes and Pylades, Achilles and Patroclus and other pairs, Greek mythology is more friendly to friends. Because it insists on universal love, Christianity, Epstein claims, is bothered by camaraderie. Rejecting the Freudian premise of an erotic basis to all relationships, he deplores the modern triumph of the therapeutic mind, not least because it distorts friendship.

Though wary and resentful of the obligations imposed by friendship, Epstein describes himself as a naturally gregarious guy. Reckoning that he personally has 75 friends, Epstein spends much of the book parsing best friends, out-of-town friends, trophy friends, women friends, old friends and acquaintances. The ability to make fine distinctions among categories of friendship is the mark of a philosophical mind, the eagerness to do so of an adolescent one.

In a book that ends up becoming oblique autobiography, Epstein surveys friendships he has had. Most of his friends remain either anonymous or identified only by initials, but he does drop a few famous names. (To further his experiment in using himself as a specimen of homo amicus, Epstein offers a friendship diary — a ledger of his lunches, dinners, phone calls, e-mails and letters during one week in April 2004. Reading the text, some might choose to depart the category of friend.) He recounts the close rapport he developed with Ralph Ellison, until the novelist mysteriously ceased all contact with him. He ranks the sociologist Edward Shils as “the friend who has meant more to me than any other,” and his preference for Shils, he claims, soured his friendship with Saul Bellow, who earlier had a falling out with Shils. Epstein does not mention how, by lampooning Bellow in a 1990 story called “Another Rare Visit With Noah Danzig,” he extinguished whatever remained of their connection.

Though he refuses to idealize friendship, Epstein fails to examine how friends can bring out the worst, as well as the best, in each other. Friendship, after all, is the engine of organized crime and government cronyism, and friends often do let friends drive drunk; sometimes they even pour the drinks.

Epstein grew up in neighborhoods and attended schools that he estimates were 60% Jewish. Though he belongs to no synagogue and avers that some of his best friends, including his wife, are gentile, he puzzles over the fact that most of his friends have been Jews. His only explanation is a vague reference to the mutual comfort provided by “historical commonality.” However, beyond his choice of friends, Epstein’s particular preoccupation with friendship could be ascribed to Jewish insecurity — an outsider’s anxiety over acceptance by the larger culture. How many friends does it take to verify an American identity? Like Arthur Miller’s Willy Loman, calibrating distinctions between being liked and well liked, Epstein, the virtuoso of friendship and escape artist of social bonds, recognizes that:“I had become something of a salesman, on the road full-time with no product in my sample case other than myself.” What happens to a peddler when they stop returning his smile? Friends are people you can count on in time of need, not people you need to count.

Steven G. Kellman teaches comparative literature at the University of Texas at San Antonio and is the author of “Redemption: The Life of Henry Roth” (W.W. Norton & Company, 2005).

Find us on Facebook!
  • Move over Dr. Ruth — there’s a (not-so) new sassy Jewish sex-therapist in town. Her name is Shirley Zussman — and just turned 100 years old.
  • From kosher wine to Ecstasy, presenting some of our best bootlegs:
  • Sara Kramer is not the first New Yorker to feel the alluring pull of the West Coast — but she might be the first heading there with Turkish Urfa pepper and za’atar in her suitcase.
  • About 1 in 40 American Jews will get pancreatic cancer (Ruth Bader Ginsberg is one of the few survivors).
  • At which grade level should classroom discussions include topics like the death of civilians kidnapping of young Israelis and sirens warning of incoming rockets?
  • Wanted: Met Council CEO.
  • “Look, on the one hand, I understand him,” says Rivka Ben-Pazi, a niece of Elchanan Hameiri, the boy that Henk Zanoli saved. “He had a family tragedy.” But on the other hand, she said, “I think he was wrong.” What do you think?
  • How about a side of Hitler with your spaghetti?
  • Why "Be fruitful and multiply" isn't as simple as it seems:
  • William Schabas may be the least of Israel's problems.
  • You've heard of the #IceBucketChallenge, but Forward publisher Sam Norich has something better: a #SoupBucketChallenge (complete with matzo balls!) Jon Stewart, Sarah Silverman & David Remnick, you have 24 hours!
  • Did Hamas just take credit for kidnapping the three Israeli teens?
  • "We know what it means to be in the headlines. We know what it feels like when the world sits idly by and watches the news from the luxury of their living room couches. We know the pain of silence. We know the agony of inaction."
  • When YA romance becomes "Hasidsploitation":
  • "I am wrapping up the summer with a beach vacation with my non-Jewish in-laws. They’re good people and real leftists who try to live the values they preach. This was a quality I admired, until the latest war in Gaza. Now they are adamant that American Jews need to take more responsibility for the deaths in Gaza. They are educated people who understand the political complexity, but I don’t think they get the emotional complexity of being an American Jew who is capable of criticizing Israel but still feels a deep connection to it. How can I get this across to them?"
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.