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Down and Out on San Remo Drive

San Remo Drive

By Leslie Epstein

Handsel Books, 236 pages, $26

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A reviewer once said of Leslie Epstein’s early collection of tragic-comic short stories: “If writers got gold stars for the risks they took, Leslie Epstein would get a handful.” Indeed, Epstein’s work is replete with “risks,” with efforts to combine high and low, the slapstick and the serious, the unexpected and the conventional. His typical protagonist wants to save the world, or at least to keep evil at bay, but comic disruptions always lurk around the corner.

Epstein is best known for “King of the Jews” (1979), an attempt to write “Holocaust fiction” at a time when many insisted that such efforts were both impossible and unwelcome. Over the last two decades, Epstein has seen his once-maligned novel emerge as a classic.

Yet he has remained, quixotically, an undervalued Jewish-American writer, partly because he falls uneasily between older, more established figures such as Saul Bellow and the younger generation of writers, including Allegra Goodman and Gary Shteyngart. But perhaps more problematic is his yoking of the farcical to the morally serious. Yet even Epstein’s sharpest critics, who argue that his thickly textured plotting is as excessive as his habit of pulling readers in opposite directions, cannot deny his talent or intelligence.

Epstein’s latest offering is “San Remo Drive,” in which he weaves many of his childhood memories into the tapestry of fiction. Unlike other writers, Epstein’s life was ripe for fictionalization. He was born in Los Angeles — in May of 1939, at a time when Germans were beginning to send Jews to Dachau — to Lillian and Philip Epstein. Philip and his twin brother Julius were famous screenwriters (among their many credits was “Casablanca”), living at a time when inhabitants of San Remo Drive referred to Jews as “Hollywood people.” Epstein watched as neighbors, including Joseph Cotton and Gregory Peck, paraded through his parents’ living room. His father staged well-publicized battles with mogul Jack Warner, and took a principled stand when interrogated by the House Un-American Activities Committee. (Asked if he had ever belonged to a subversive organization, Epstein’s father replied that he had. Asked to identify the organization, he offered up the name Warner Bros.)

One would think it impossible for Epstein to avoid Jewishness of some sort as he grew up. But for all its glitz and glamour, the Hollywood Jewish community of that time was not only secular but also deracinated, frightened that people reflexively associated Jews with communism. In a 1990 autobiographical essay, Epstein wrote that the word “Jew,” “especially in the mouth of a Gentile,” remained “highly charged” and personally troubling for him. For the first decade of his life, Epstein doubted whether he ever heard the word “Jew” mentioned within his family, and came to identify as a Jewish American only after a long struggle to find out who he was in the context of a world that had systematically exterminated six million of his co-religionists.

In “San Remo Drive,” Epstein’s name changes to Richard Jacobi, and his protagonist, unlike the writer himself, goes on to become a world-class painter. But many events, such as trick-or-treating at the home of writer Thomas Mann or first hearing the word “kike,” are lifted, virtually wholesale, from Epstein’s life.

If “San Remo Drive” were merely an evocation of the early 1950s, with children fascinated by the new phenomenon called television or adults fretting about the Cold War, it would have been worth the price of admission. But Epstein provides a vivid portrait of the atmosphere in Los Angeles. “The sun was where it always was,” reads a part of the novel’s opening line, one that goes on to add the small brush strokes of difference that the novel’s protagonist-painter might notice: “…high overhead, though on the particular Sunday I have in mind it had to fight its way through a thin layer of cloud that stretched above us like a sheet of wax paper.”

Later, Richard makes the relationship between art and life — especially his art and life — explicit: “So it is, I discovered, that all art is not created from the actual objects or the life we see around us, but from the images of our childhood, with its early sorrows and many joys, that we carry undamaged within.” In Richard’s case, the early sorrows include an obsessive-compulsive younger brother who later divides his life between Eastern meditation and writing an endless work-in-progress, and a mother whose separation issues become clear only in the novel’s final pages.

One could argue that typical Epstein novels, such as “Pinto and Sons” (1990) or “Pandaemonium” (1997), were efforts to hide behind history. Even “King of the Jews” might be included in the category of Epstein’s work that depends heavily on library research and keeps pain at an objective distance.

In “King of the Jews,” Epstein made clear his belief that sentimentality is the trap good writing must avoid, and the same is true when one confronts the “facts” of childhood in order to arrange them into a meaningful pattern. Not all of the strings in “San Remo Drive” pull themselves together, but the novel’s descriptive power doesn’t miss a beat. It continues to reveal much about the landscape of Los Angeles, then and now, as it does about the interior of Epstein’s heart.

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