The Boring Details of Real-Life Portnoys
The Body of Brooklyn
By David Lazar
University of Iowa Press, 163 pages, $24.95.
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If you thought Philip Roth’s Portnoys were emotionally claustrophobic, essayist David Lazar’s real-life family almost has them beat.
Not only did his mother seem to know when he was masturbating, as if she had some kind of sexual ESP, but his masturbation was a subject of kitchen-table discussion. Weirder still, copies of his Playboy magazine would disappear from his room; suspicious of his mother’s claims that she had no idea what “stuff” of his was missing, he searched her room and found the magazines nestled among sheets in her dresser. He took them back, other magazines disappeared and the strange game continued.
Lazar grew up in the 1960s in the Italian neighborhood of Bensonhurst, two generations removed from shtetls and pogroms and knee-deep in neuroses. In their cramped home, his parents had only a folding door to their bedroom. David at 3 or 4 would squeeze his maternal grandmother’s breasts and make honking noises. She laughed. He doesn’t record how anyone else in his family responded (least of all his grandfather.) Much later his brother would squeeze their mother’s upper arms and call them flabby. She laughed too. Lazar was weaned at 3 and not fully toilet-trained until 6, often with disgusting results.
We never find out what this freakish lack of boundaries means because going deep isn’t exactly Lazar’s aim. In a smart-alecky introduction, he declares that writing personal essays has “always felt like a kind of slapstick.” It’s also like a vanity film project, he notes more disarmingly, and in keeping with that cinematic image, in two pages he refers to Luis Buñuel, Preston Sturges, John Garfield, Eddie Bracken, William Powell, Alfred Hitchcock and Jackie Cooper.
So, before the book begins, you feel like you’re being prepped for some kind of self-reflexive Monty Python skit that veers off in wild directions, always commenting on its own content. The tone and method generally continue, whether Lazar is talking about the family’s mixed menus of Eastern European Jewish food and American delights, like frozen French Fries; the Gregor Samsa-esque Orthodox Jewish kid in school, Stephen Lipshitz, who seemed to be “our rickety, forgotten, cultural history embodied,” or his first visit to a prostitute, at age 14. Insights are worried, twisted, turned in on themselves — all in the service of indeterminacy or, as Lazar likes to say, “contingency.”
The shtick is fitfully entertaining. Too often, though, Lazar’s revelations either fall flat or seem like Jerry Springer fodder: shock without real insight. Lazar doesn’t say much about his Jewish background except in passing (though a good deal of one essay about his rageful travel agent father concerns his business use over the phone of a WASPy-sounding name, John Waterman). Whereas Roth and Woody Allen and even Monty Python used the neurotic details of life to get at something larger, Lazar seems merely stuck on the details.
While it’s intriguing to see the writer’s mind at work, Lazar spends so much time questioning his memory of specific events — and memory itself — that it begins to feel like a gimmick, an attempt to make these personal essays more original at a time when creative nonfiction is a wildly burgeoning literary genre and the new Holy Grail for beginning writing students. His persistent wordplay feels obvious or annoying, and he’s so devoted to taking us behind the scenes of his essays, it’s as if he’s forgotten that there’s supposed to be a show going on.
But Lazar is moving when he talks about the psychic and social impact of being a fat adolescent. And he’s truly amusing — not just clever-clever — in his fantasy of wanting to be the son of character actors Edward Everett Horton (“Holiday,” “Shall We Dance?”) and Jesse Royce Landis (“North by Northwest,” “To Catch a Thief”), making an entertaining commentator on films he loves. He’s also least glib and most affecting when he riffs on family photos in the form of a “Photographic Mishnah,” showing a depth of insight and feeling that flares up too infrequently in this collection: “The unstrained happiness of parents in old photographs is unbearable, perhaps because of our bitterness at who they became for us, our desire to connect only with their younger selves, who would understand our grievances.”
Lev Raphael is the mysteries columnist for the Detroit Free Press. His novel “The German Money” will be published in September (Leapfrog Press).