I recall, back in my student days at Oxford, a classmate who had each issue of The American Scholar shipped to her from across the pond primarily to read the essays by the mysterious contributor Aristides. I came to share my friend’s enthusiasm for this essayist, who was almost a throwback to an earlier age in his erudition and beautifully constructed prose. On any topic, even the most commonplace — napping, gossip, pets, aging — Aristides would craft rich expositions that could serve as models of English composition.
Aristides, as it turns out, was a pseudonym for Joseph Epstein, editor of The American Scholar from 1975 to 1997. Since his departure from that periodical, he has continued to show off his stylish prose in a series of discursive books, including volumes devoted to snobbery, friendship, and envy. However, I never had the chance to read Epstein’s fiction until I encountered his latest book, entitled The Love Song of A. Jerome Minkoff. In these 14 stories, Epstein moves away from the expansive topics of his essays, and presents small-scale vignettes, most of them focusing on post-WWII Jewish life in Chicago.
I had some trepidations about reading this book. Epstein’s writing talent seems so well suited for the general — he has usually picked the most amorphous topics for his books and essays — that I doubted he could shift gears and do justice to the particular. The great essayist, I feared, might be a sub-par storyteller. Yet I walk away a true believer. In story after story in this collection, he presents vivid characters, well-paced narratives, perky dialogue and solid plots. Hey, he now makes me wonder why he has spent all those years writing non-fiction.
Epstein’s achievement is all the more impressive when one considers the constraints he imposes on himself in these stories. Many of his characters are in their 70s or 80s. They have often spent their lives in ho-hum pursuits — selling auto parts or plumbing fixtures — and now have few ambitions or unfulfilled dreams, if they ever did. But they do have regrets, memories and lingering relationships, and these present their own elements of drama and crisis.
In one story, Jerry Mandel encounters a childhood friend who was the star junior tennis player in the Chicago area, but is now selling lightbulbs at Home Depot. In another tale, David Siegel befriends a Muslim street person, but soon finds that his acts of charity lead to unintended, and perhaps dangerous, consequences. Widower Milton Kuperman, who figures in another story, has spent his life buying and selling closeout items, but now he starts dating a woman who only wants to attend concerts of classical music. The set-ups are simple enough, but Epstein makes each account compelling, surprising, and true to life.
Some of the characters escape the practicalities of the real world to become authors or philosophers. Most here have come to expect that their moments of great achievement will be grounded in everyday matters. I kept on finding myself reminded of the wealthy family in Henry James’ The Ambassadors, who are too embarrassed to admit where the money comes from, merely hinting that it derives from “a small, trivial, rather ridiculous object of the commonest domestic use” yet one lacking in “dignity”.
In Epstein’s stories, most characters make their living in similarly banal ways. Here people keep saying things like: “Where you make your dough is in buying. Any shmegegge can move the goods if the price is right.” Or: “You don’t become an accountant. You hire an accountant.” Or we peek in on Kuperman’s mind when, while listening to a Handel oratorio: he agonizes over a close-out purchase he had just made of a lot of out-of-fashion ties — but finally consoles himself with the thought: “At eight cents a shot, how could he go wrong?”
Even Kuperman, though, transcends the here-and-now and has his moment of ecstasy. This recurring turnaround, the moment of self-discovery in his stories, may be Epstein’s greatest achievement. At an age when most pressing matters should be resolved, his characters still have the capacity to surprise themselves and others. Perhaps the same is true of Epstein, the longstanding master of the essay, who shows here his remarkable talent for fiction.