By D.J. Levien
Plume, 240 pages, $13.
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Elliott Grubman, the protagonist in screenwriter D.J. Levien’s new novel, is a man split down the middle, and it’s all there in his oxymoronic name. Look at that prissy “Elliott,” a name — like Howard — that brands many post-Holocaust American Jewish men with their parents’ hope that its WASPy gentility would make them seem truly American. But of course it’s paired with that clunky Jewish family name — which in this case couldn’t be more accurate, because Grubman literally had to grub and hustle for a living as a young man.
Even more appropriately, “grub” in Yiddish means coarse, crude, harsh, crass — all of which fit despite his fortune of $100 million. Grubman is the publisher of a vulgar Hustler-like magazine bizarrely called “Swagbelly,” but his fortune is really based on the phone sex lines advertised in its back pages. Crotch-deep in porn, he surrounds himself with luxury and, like any nouveau riche, he can’t help reveling in his good fortune and letting us know about it. He drives a vintage Bugatti (which he proudly notes stands out among other luxury cars), he wears a Sulka robe, sports a black ostrich Asprey attaché case, obsesses about the thread count of his sheets, smokes Montecristos, reminds you that he’s wearing Ferragamo shoes and glories in owning almost 200 Italian-made suits whose price tags start at $7,500 apiece. The opening pages show him in all his parvenu glory, not least because he thinks that only when you reach this sartorial empyrean does a tailor ask which way you dress and adjust the tailoring accordingly. But Grubman remains profoundly unhappy, suffering from a deep-rooted insecurity that $100 million couldn’t ease. Would a billion do it? He thinks it might, but we know it wouldn’t.
Levien’s wonderfully grim Hollywood satire “Wormwood” immersed readers in a world of incessant hunger for advancement and reveled in the often slimy minutiae of agenting, developing and producing. And in Grubman, Levien offers readers a character living in another tortured world of unrealized and unrealizable desires. A relentless womanizer who’s increasingly impotent as he heads into his 50s, Grubman is so desperate for acceptance that he can’t just try to learn polo, he has to field his own team. He leaves grotesquely large tips at his favorite Italian restaurant and then pressures the manager to let him buy a share of the restaurant so as to keep the former Mrs. Grubman from dining there with her young lover. Perhaps the ultimate futile gesture is his giving over a million dollars to his son’s private school in Connecticut to build a Grubman Athletic Building.
All of this is sadly entertaining, a dilemma reminiscent of Simon Rosedale’s in “The House of Mirth.” But Edith Wharton’s novel appeared almost a century ago. For all its contemporary trappings, the book feels quaint: A wealthy Jewish porn king can’t find a place in today’s New York? He’d be a celebrity, not a pariah. In addition, we learn that Grubman is identified as a Jew because of taunting from schoolmates and coming under fire from a fiercely antisemitic coach. To him, Judaism means “the suffering, the bond in the ostracism,” and he’s perpetually aware of the places he can’t go or wouldn’t be accepted. But who was his family and how did he get this way? Levien drops one possible clue to a therapist when Grubman discusses his mother: “Survived the Holocaust, you know.” Potentially interesting, but Levien would have had to put more effort into exploring this aspect of his protagonist’s life to make it meaningful.
Despite the book’s flaws, however, Grubman’s a sympathetic and intriguing character: Rodney Dangerfield as porn king. Like the lavish hotel suite room that seems very different after he has another bout of impotence, he feels “seedy despite being deluxe,” making him another Jewish casualty of what William James famously described as America’s national disease: “worship of the bitch-goddess success.”
Lev Raphael is the author of “The German Money” (Leapfrog, 2003).