Joseph Epstein, The Love Song of A. Jerome Minkoff and Other Stories (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010). $24.00, 272 pages.
My taste in fiction is ambivalent.
On the one hand, I enjoy reading stories about the conflict between good and evil, in which the two poles are clearly defined and the former defeats the latter, especially when victory is snatched last-minute from the jaws of defeat. J. R. R. Tolkien called this snatching eucatastrophe. The Lord of the Rings is a masterpiece of this genre of literature. Less mythologically, Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan novels and Lee Child’s Jack Reacher novels—and what’s up with action heroes being named Jack?—also belong to this genre.
On the other hand, I enjoy reading the short stories of Joseph Epstein, who writes close inspections of “fabulous small Jews”—to borrow the title of his previous collection of short stories. In The Love Song of A. Jerome Minkoff and Other Stories, Epstein meditates on the lives, loves, and losses of professionally successful, late-middle-age and senior-citizen Jewish men, who grew up, were educated, worked, and live in or near Chicago. Epstein himself is such a man. Not knowing him, it’s difficult to know how autobiographical his writing is, but certainly his experiences have colored his stories.
Not much happens in Epstein’s stories. Sauron is not defeated. The bad guys do not get their violent comeuppance. Instead, a widower decides not to remarry a wealthy widow. A literature professor discovers there’s more to life than art. A businessman helps out a homeless man then wonders why the man resents him. A philosopher ponders finding love with a middle-aged woman who works as a check-out clerk at the supermarket. A teacher runs into his high-school tennis partner fifty years later and ponders the difference in the trajectories of their lives. A man sees that a neighbor’s dreams for their daughter blind them to whom that daughter really is, and what she can accomplish.
There is no eucatastrophe in any of these stories, and hardly any catastrophe. Which is what makes them so interesting to me. My life is not, at least in the day-to-day details, a titanic struggle between good and evil, in which large decisions must be hammered out. It is, rather, a minute struggle between good and mediocre, in which small choices must be made. What Epstein’s stories force me to think about is the long-term consequences of these small choices. How to balance home and work. How to work well, even knowing that one’s work accomplishments are ephemeral. How to appreciate beauty without becoming enslaved to art. How to be kind, even to unappreciative people.
If you’re not interested in reflecting on these small questions, don’t read Epstein’s book. But if so, please do.
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