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Kissing and Telling

The Great Kisser
By David Evanier
Rager Media, Inc. 179 pages, $24.95

Though David Evanier should best be known as a writer of stories that feign to punch and kick in the upstart manner of their Chosen People, he also traffics in the ethnicities of others, having authored nonfiction volumes on singers Bobby Darin and Jimmy Roselli. A few years ago he co-authored the memoir of an actor, Joe Pantoliano, who, according to a note appended to the end of his lastest book, “plays Ralph on HBO’s ‘The Sopranos’.”

Such flirtation with “real life,” a relationship with reality as it might exist, out of quotes, to the Old Worldly, clan-conscious and the gutter-wise, serves Evanier well in his present work, a volume titled “The Great Kisser.” Indeed, though the eight sections here (whether they’re eight stories, or else eight chapters of marketing’s newest beast: “a novel-in-stories”) are ostensibly fiction, they often gossip into fact. The reader is left to whisper how they might ultimately be a bit of both, and so of neither, too, and altogether brilliant.

The book’s essential condition can be best discovered in a vignette from its opening story, “The Tapes.” Here the narrator, David Goldberg, remembers himself at 16, wandering into the Gotham Book Mart on West 47th Street in Manhattan, and encountering Frances Steloff, whose name is dropped casually, without identification. Suffice it to say, you should know her, too: She was that legendary store’s equally legendary owner, who, after asking Goldberg if he’s a writer, offers him a job. It’s an offer that, to paraphrase Evanier’s adulated wiseguys, he’d be foolish to refuse.

Goldberg, the authorial surrogate who’s also the author of himself, explains: “I could function in the world as a writer, working in this one shop where I would not have to hide myself, where I could survive without being scorned and ridiculed for not keeping pace with the drumbeat of commerce.” All of which are noble sentiments of a prospectively sentimental education, only to be second-guessed, and then expelled, by the paragraphs that follow: “And, my heart beating, I never called her, didn’t allow myself to think about it, never went near the shop for years, never gazed into the window lest she see me, so afraid of failing those who loved me, of their turning on me when they realize what a fraud I was. And I ran.”

Steloff rebuffed, Goldberg self-discovers and Evanier’s exposed. So much like this Goldberg (it seems, or so the author must want it to seem), Evanier does not know who he is, either. Whether a hardened memoirist or a gleeful fictioneer, a hack or else a Master — no matter: Evanier is all these things, plus the sum of their parts, and all with a wishniak on top.

Evanier as Goldberg seems to fear the authority of definition — even that of self-definition, a neurosis that might not help him out in life, but helps the writing of life just fine. If all this sounds like a session of analysis, it’s actually intended to be an analysis of an analysis: “The Tapes” seems like fiction about a shrink, Dr. Solomon Butinsky (perhaps from the Yiddishing American idiom, as commonly spelled “Buttinsky” — meaning one who’s always “butting in”). But it’s really about his patient, Goldberg, and, redoubling through the replay of the titular tapes, which are records of past analysis, about the psychology of the fictive form itself: the fiction Evanier must write through Goldberg, those fictions we each revise about ourselves, and others, and, as well, those we infer about the authors we might read.

A set of stories follows regarding an organization named Jewish Punchers, an Anti-Defamation League if administered by the Marx Brothers, with an emphasis on Cheapo: The salaries are terrible, and not much work ever manages to get done. “We sat behind masses of Jewish data on our desks, which we were supposed to place in two files: ‘Good for the Jews’ and ‘Bad for the Jews’.” As for Goldberg himself — in which should he place his own pages? Guilty by association, it seems, Evanier tidies up this filing for us in the opening of the title story, the most tragic of Goldberg’s metafictive memoirs: “I was known as the Jewish writer who hated his mother more than any other Jewish writer. My best known story was ‘My Mother Is Not Living’.” Needless to note, that story appears nowhere in this volume. Nor in any volume with which we should ever be familiar.

The next story is little more than a sketch — a shtick, titled “Danny and Me” — and it recounts Goldberg’s time spent volunteering his companionship with the mentally challenged. The subject of a later story, “The Better Man,” doesn’t enjoy such an exculpatory diagnosis: Hymie Stolowitz, “president of Literary Knockouts,” is not autistic — he’s quite possibly, and willfully, deranged. Goldberg remembers: “[Stolowitz] argued a copyright law case before the Supreme Court and he won. They named it after him. He’d hung out at the Peppermint Lounge with Joey Dee and the Starlighters when the twist was a craze and at Sardi’s and the Copacabana when they were the meccas of Broadway. He was a great storyteller. He headed a powerful literary foundation. He obtained money for the heirs of great writers, keeping his huge cut. He represented the most beautiful literature ever written, held it in his filthy hands. He hung with Harry Cohn and Orson Welles and William Faulkner.”

What a character! And, banished from the “real world,” we’re back to literature again.

As Goldberg, so Evanier, pace the familiarly familial: the late-century, Jewish American, unfailingly male writer too “clever” for narrative, which means, by half, too narcissistic for it, too. Their own favored subjects, writers such as Evanier can never get too far from writing about writing, from the meaning of a self lived on the page — its struggles, its triumphs; all its clichés and their occasional justifications in a life made fully conscious, documented in its every love and tantrum. Harold Brodkey was like that: self-obsessive, a maniacal revisionist of childhood’s condition. As was Leonard Michaels: sexually confessional, always comparing, shameless amid an embarrassment of melting-pot scatologies. Among the living there’s the great Stephen Dixon, who has blurbed Evanier’s book generously and well. Tellingly, ego doesn’t preclude this gang’s essential sweetness: their eagerness, their earnestness, a desire that’s endearing in its confusion between pleasing and shocking (if not a mother, then a maternal public). Mention Evanier in the same breath as the best: He is, and knows he is, one of our greatest kissers.

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