The Peculiarly Jewish Predicament


By John Felstiner

Published November 05, 2004, issue of November 05, 2004.
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Little Men: Novellas and Stories

By Gerald Shapiro

Columbus Ohio State University Press, 219 pages, $29.95.

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‘Just tell me — is it good for the Jews?” The precariousness of Diaspora existence got turned against Philip Roth when “Goodbye Columbus and Other Stories” (1958) seemed to betray nasty Jewish foibles to America’s goyim. Though Gerald Shapiro’s tragi-comic vision places him in the great tradition of Jewish American fiction, he needn’t expect an edict from today’s guardians of the faith — we’re another generation beyond post-immigrant anxieties, and the great triumvirate of Bellow-Malamud-Roth has long since authenticated the human truths traceable through Jewish American experience.

As in Shapiro’s moving and funny “Bad Jews and Other Stories” (1990), the peculiarly Jewish, peculiarly human predicament springs forth in his new collection with comic, sometimes wildly absurd, force, but always with some saving sympathy, never mere satire or contempt — at least not for his main characters. These are mostly men — “little men,” in one way or another. The book’s two novellas and three stories present only one female protagonist, who (as with Shapiro’s predecessors) hasn’t the angst-driven, wayward energy of the others.

“Bernard, the Mummy” has no Jewish bent, except perhaps for the anti-hero’s given name. This farcical story begins in the vein of Raymond Carver, with Bernard’s wife enthralled by an iron she’s won in a raffle — an iron with a built-in telephone. However, for them to keep this wonder, a company rep must visit them, peddling a monstrous vacuum cleaner for $3,000. Banal then turns antic, as Bernard manages to burn his leg, arm and ear with the telephone iron.

Whereupon antic goes manic. Fired from his job, Bernard is hired by a corporation from hell. His colleagues wantonly ply him with rye whiskey before his first big presentation.

He would stumble blindly into the senior partners’ conference room half an hour late, interrupting another presentation. He would come in swinging his good arm in front of him like a white cane, and something incoherent

had come unbidden out of his mouth, a kind of ranting monologue about how terrible a week he’d been having… the iron with the telephone in the handle, the vacuum cleaner salesman and all the rest of it.

The story ends on a “fantasaic” sexual encounter, undercut by his wounds: “Don’t do anything to my ear. The ear is off-limits.”

“Spivak in Babylon,” a novella, prompted the title of the book’s French edition, “Un Shmok à Babylon.” But schmuck seems too harsh a term for Shapiro’s risibly thwarted boy-men. Something between schlemiel and schlimazel would be more like it. When Leo Spivak, a Chicago advertising copywriter, thought about his female boss, “his heart flapped desperately against his ribcage like a dying fish.” He can’t obtain paper clips because he’s scared of the woman who runs the supply room. As Leo starts talking, his therapist’s eyelids flutter. Then the therapist sleeps through the session. “Once or twice Leo considered dropping off to sleep himself. Why not? Take a nap, just let go a little. But no, that would have been inappropriate.” What’s more, the constant presence in his dreams is an amiably raunchy former President Reagan.

Leo’s big break comes when he’s sent to Hollywood, Calif., to help film a commercial for “Diana,” a feminine hygiene spray. But it’s for “girls, ten to twelve — that’s our target audience.” Cocaine, gourmand gorging and drunken sex sweep him along. Meanwhile, from Rachel at home he learns it’s a daughter on the way. “How could he possibly be anyone’s father? It was hard enough simply to be himself — to be Leo Spivak.”

Finally, when Reagan invites him to get “coked to the gills,” the dream (and the novella) ends with Leo frantically racing away “in the dark, moonless night of his heart,” knowing “he wasn’t going anywhere.”

What counts, Shapiro himself knows, is “how to survive the wreckage of the world.” His novella “A Box of Ashes,” at once touching, compelling and richly absurd, depicts a sort of survival. Here his humane craft works to shape someone we both cherish and deplore. Ira Mittleman, whose consciousness the narrative follows deftly, is just that: a midlife male caught amid the conflicts flesh is heir to, l’homme moyen sensuel with strains of Kafka and Joyce.

“Making love to his ex-wife Pauline on Friday nights was probably the most sophisticated thing Ira Mittelman had ever done in his life.” A classic opening sentence introduces Ira, whose life in San Francisco is on hold. His father, before dying, had left Post-its around his sickroom and scrawled on his will: “Scatter my ashes at HaHaTonka — Ira knows the way.” Indeed, decades earlier Ira had spent idyllic summers, sometimes with his dad, at a Boy Scouts of America camp in the Ozarks. (A flashback catches the wary attempts of midcentury Jews to bond with mainstream culture. Eagle Scout Ira “had memorized everything, gone through all the motions, practiced his sheepshank, his sheet bend, his half hitch and his clove hitch until his little fingers were numb, but the whole shebang amounted to bubkes.”) Now, tethered to his Friday nights and oppressed anyway because “he had not sufficiently loved his father,” Ira can’t bring himself to make the filial journey, a kind of Kaddish (whose words he does not know).

Meanwhile he makes a living restoring old books. One day a client brings Ira a battered first edition of Milton’s “Paradise Regained,” but that night Pauline tells him she’s getting remarried. In a desperate spasm he flies to Missouri, carrying the ashes, and picks up an old chum who’s become grotesquely obese, gun toting and Pentecostal. They drive out to HaHaTonka, and there the story explodes gloriously in ways that would beggar summary even more than what I’ve done so far.

Shapiro’s eye and ear for detail (Boys’ Life ads for bullwhips “Hand made by Cherokee Indians!”), his figurative knack (Ira’s remorse “so leaden it threatened to plunge him right through the floor”) and his genius for deep-scouring flashbacks — these and more make “A Box of Ashes” a poignant-hilarious roller coaster. As it ends, rapt detail of Ira restoring “Paradise Regained” lifts this novella toward mystery and miracle.

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