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).