Commentary Magazine


Once Upon a Droshky, by Jerome Charyn; and Seven Days of Mourning, by L. S. Simckes

Jewish Camp

Once Upon a Droshky.
by Jerome Charyn.
McGraw-Hill. 222 pp. $4.95.

Seven Days of Mourning.
by L. S. Simckes.
Random House. 113 pp. $3.95.

A few years ago, I belonged to an informal circle at the University of Chicago. Most of us were graduate students in English, either active or lapsed, and most of us were also Jewish. The latter tie was one that we seldom dwelt on as such, so engrossed were we in more immediate problems of identity, one of which was to confirm the belief that we were contemporary literary intellectuals, wholly at home in the society and its culture, as well as the legitimate heirs to at least one period of English or American literature. However, every so often we would let all that go, and at a party or some other boozy occasion, we would begin to turn each other on by telling Jewish jokes. Once the spirit of Jewish exotica descended upon us, we could go on for hours, taking even the chestnuts from adolescence and investing them with elaborate character portrayals, cunning nuances of accent and idiom, bizarre twists of the formerly simple plot line, and even an occasional stab at profundity, furnished by Buber. As a result, the punch line was often the weakest point in the joke, a small mouse of irony all but done in by the exaggerated labors to produce it. However, even when we were not all that amusing to each other we could count on the fascination of the audience who were not Jewish and who seemed to regard their ability to get with the intricacies and intimacies of life behind the tailor shop or in “Rabbi’s study” as an index of their sophistication.

No doubt one of the reasons why we carried on in this way was that there was a particular satisfaction in acting on the idea that being Jewish had suddenly become a very interesting thing to be in the eyes of our Gentile friends. This was the period when all of us were reading Bellow, Malamud, Singer, et al. with a great sense of discovery. No doubt, too, these protracted bouts of joke-telling also furnished some relief from the various kinds of protective camouflage we wore from class to class, and from the paper on George Herbert to the one on Henry James. And, of course, these bouts provided a broad opportunity for that admixture of affection and wryness, curiosity and knowingness, sentimentality and scurrility toward things Jewish that appears to be the final reflex of Jewish identity as it sinks beneath the sands of assimilation. However, since most of us comedians were fiction writers manqué, I think that the main incentive and satisfaction were that Jewish character and color and idiom served to spring our imagination: the jokes became a virtually free object of mimicry and fantasy, one that incorporated a range of personal feelings without the pressure of social involvement or the demands of serious representation. In short, what goes by the name just now of “camp.”

_____________

 

All of which brings me to the vogue of contemporary American-Jewish fiction, specifically to two recent examples of it—Jerome Charyn’s Once Upon A Droshky and L. S. Simckes’s Seven Days of Mourning. The jacket copy of each of these first novels emphasizes its close relation to the tradition of Jewish humor and art and also its exuberant inventiveness. The novels themselves are both set in the heartland of Jewishness—the Lower East Side—presented in its most indigenous and “wild” aspects, or at least what remains of them. Charyn’s Once Upon A Droshky is a takeoff on a surviving remnant of the Second Avenue Theater and cafeteria scene as it passes before the eyes and through the memory of an old madcap Yiddish actor. Simckes’s Seven Days of Mourning is contained entirely within a Broome Street flat and provides a slice of Jewish family life so decayed and weird as to belong to nothing so much as the ages and the present. In short, both novels look like the real thing—Yiddishkeit with a modern twist—at least to the foreign eye. I suspect that this is the main reason why they were published by Random House and McGraw Hill respectively, and why both these houses, which pride themselves on their taste as well as enterprise in fiction, should have had high hopes for them. “Jewish” fiction is caviar for the happy few; it is also “seminal” in somewhat the same way that Southern fiction was said to be a decade ago. One imagines that the audience envisioned for these two novels is a mass version of those sharp young intellectual types who were so easily amused and moved by those performances of ours in Chicago.

Nor would Charyn or Simckes have been out of place among the performers. Charyn is a graduate student at Columbia; Simckes is at Harvard. Though Simckes is said to come “from a long line of rabbis,” I doubt if he knows much more about Broome Street than I do or that Charyn knows about the recondite culture of the Royale and the plays of Jacob Gordin. Since both are obviously talented young writers, trained in literature, the only reasons I can adduce as to why each of them has chosen to launch his career with such thin improvised versions of the immigrant folkways is that there is a literary premium on them today and that each in his own way has fallen under the facile spell of Jewish camp. Although Seven Days of Mourning drags some sort of serious meaning in tow, while Once Upon A Droshky is burlesque occasionally cut with literary sentiment, the essential impulse of both novels is an impersonation act. Here is Charyn, crouched inside of Yankel Rabinowitz, relating the origin of the actor’s fatal feud with Pincus, the critic:

I’m telling you the midget was insane. The biggest actresses fell in love with him, one after the other. Like flies! But he wanted only Shaindele! And when he wrote her messages, who do you think he picked out to deliver them? Me! And when I appeared at the dressing room with Pincus’ messages, she chased out all the other chorus girls, closed the curtain and dragged me over to the couch. Why should I lie? You think I didn’t enjoy myself! A John Alden I never was, and I’ll never be! . . . The girl wore me out! What, at least at the Silver Draidl I had time to relax . . .

And so forth. With his John Aldens and Silver Draidls, Charyn re-creates his “world” as a comedy routine rooted in frequent references to Tomashevsky, Ben-Ami, Joseph Buloff, the names of theaters, plays, and streets as well, as to cockroaches, pushcarts, and borsht and boiled potatoes. After a promising start the characters fall into a series of flat exotic types—the gentled ex-mobster, the demented peddler, the avaricious landlord, the crooked lawyer, the slovenly cafeteria owner, the superannuated chippy, the rich but obese widow. There is a plot of sorts which keeps Yankele scurrying between the “Golden Age Center” in Washington Heights and Schimmel’s Cafeteria somewhere around Second Avenue, where his old gang of Yiddish ne’er-do-wells has taken its last refuge against the forces of modern progress and corruption. Held together mainly by verbal energy, the thinness of Charyn’s material inevitably drives him to an increasingly antic and bizarre treatment. The net result is a kind of animated cartoon of the Second Avenue cultural life that, unlike Grace Paley’s Goodby and Good Luck, reveals less of a sense of that life’s natural character than of the author’s straining sense of humor.

Seven Days of Mourning, on the other hand, is mainly repulsive. Here is Simckes, masquerading as the witty, sadistic son of an immigrant family:

Yanina’s coming home could only make the house more interesting and you can be sure nothing in the world would have persuaded me to save my family from what I knew would be the most painful moment in its history. . . . So I am very grateful to my nitwit sister Bracha for doing away with herself when no one expected it of her. I am grateful because she brought us all together again. . . . Poor Bracha, she was as quick and thorough as a taxicab, and no one could stop her, not even the nuts who befriended her. And despite her efforts, we Shimanskys weren’t taking any notice.

Lacking Charyn’s gift for mimicry, his intuitive, if trivializing, feeling for the flavor and accent of the Yiddish-American scene, Simckes attempts to get along by rendering Jewish marginality as disease and its religious traditions as a psychiatric cure. No Zionist of the old school, railing against the pathology of the ghetto, could begin to conceive of the grotesque Shimanskys locked up together in their flat and their dementia. In a race with nausea, I shall try to be quick. For the conventional domineering mother and the ineffectual father of the immigrant household, Simckes brings forward an obese little monster of persecution and a skeleton in underwear who survives by weeping, shivering, and choking fits. Along with the feebleminded daughter who has been shut away and killed herself and the narrator who is permanently crippled, there is an older daughter who is a slightly more winning version of her mother, her husband who suffers from brain damage, and their hysterical child who also has recessive testicles. To complete the picture there is a grandfather who lives alone and spends his time draining his wens, and a neighbor who likes to demonstrate the mysteries of life by taking the Shimansky children into the bathroom with her. In case anyone should miss what is known in creative writing courses as the “point of view,” Simckes alludes at every early opportunity to the animal-like nature of his characters, drawing his analogues mainly from the lower phyla—snails, lizards, kitchen-beetles, spiders, and so forth—and joins the action to the theme by focusing upon the characters’ marginally psychotic oral and anal fixations.

_____________

 

Into this Jewish menage—or better, menagerie—is eventually introduced Vossen Gleich, a deformed quack who brings with him rabbinical light and group therapy. Since everyone has to be a psychic freak to balance on this sharply tilted stage, Gleich is sane mainly by comparison and through the requirements of the theme, which is that only by properly mourning the death of the daughter and by having, as they say, pity and love, and a bit of genital sex, will the family be cured. (At the end Gleich is fixing up the narrator with a humpbacked dwarf.) With the appearance of Gleich the book suddenly swells with those hints of profundity that my friends and I in Chicago liked to toss in every so often: “Life is a misfortune . . .” says Gleich, “but we must make it sacred.” Or: “I am Gleich . . . if I wound, I heal.” Or: “Like your mother, you’re bitter. And like your father, you don’t want to change.” The traditions of Judaism and psychoanalysis are whispering to us. But no earned possibility of change is reached: how could it be when not even Dorothy Day could help Simckes’s Shimanskys. The whispers, along with a thought or two from Norman O. Brown, are merely part of the camp and make Simckes’s venture into Jewish folk life intellectually as well as morally vulgar.

Two blurbs are to be found on the back of Seven Days of Mourning. Bernard Malamud describes the book as “imperfect” but still “an original feat of the imagination. It cleanses and purifies through love for the human being.” The other comment is by the critic Albert J. Guerard: “At his best [Simckes] challenges, for outrageous and ruthless invention, both Isaac Babel and Bernard Malamud. The novel is sad, funny, insufferably and excitingly human.” Ordinarily blurbs aren’t meant to mean much and it’s a cheap tactic to take an advantage of them, but these two happen to signify pretty well the terms of the literary cachet of American-Jewish fiction just now, which not even a book such as Simckes’s seems able to question, much less reduce.

This fiction, so its reputation goes, is full of “invention” (imagination, vitality, wildness, etc.) and it is human (compassionate, loving, radiant with insight, etc.). Since genuine vitality and humanity are in short supply these days in fiction, as everywhere else, one can understand why they should be so much appreciated and why pretensions to them should be so easily confused with the real thing. However, as conventions of a new genre of Jewish folk writing represented by these two novels as well as by, say, Norman Fruchter’s Coat Upon a Stick, or Edward Adler’s Notes from a Dark Street, they derive from a patently tenuous and arbitrary, when not also narcissistic, relation to the folk material that provides their basis. The truth is that as one moves from Babel to Malamud to a writer like Simckes, the use of this material becomes increasingly exploitative (“outrageous, ruthless”) in the separation of supposedly Jewish values and modes of behavior from the actual culture in which they were part of a coherent way of life and through which they gain their authority as aspects of human behavior and value as such. Jewish character, color, idiom, tradition, etc. used merely as literary props to achieve distinctiveness or as a kind of trampoline upon which assimilated young writers find they can perform will inevitably lose their integrity, become inauthentic, and more likely than not, turn into the grotesque both in subject matter and treatment. “I was, with God’s help, a poor man,” says Sholem Aleichem’s Tevye, with the complete aptness, the lack of literary distortion given to a folk artist who is in perfect touch with his world. But once the common folk life and the expressive purposes to which it is put become separated, either through the writer’s intention or ignorance, he enters the realm of the inauthentic, which takes a great deal of moral autonomy and art to redeem. For folk material has a way of taking its revenge upon the writer who is exploiting it. In the case of Adler and Fruchter it dries up and becomes abstract; in the case of Charyn it flickers intermittently and goes out; in the case of Simckes it quickly sickens, dies, and rots in his hands.

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