Commentary Magazine


Stranger Than Fiction

Why would the reader of a slim volume of short stories by an American Jewish writer he has never read before jump from the bed on which he has been reading and run shouting into the living room?

Listen to a story.

Although David Evanier, now in his early sixties and living in Brooklyn, has never achieved celebrity status, he has a notable literary career to his credit. This includes three previous books of fiction, The Swinging Headhunter, The One-Star Jew, and Red Love, a well-received novel set in the world of New York Jewish Communists at the time of the Rosenberg trial; two books about the American pop-music scene, Making the Wise-guys Weep: The Jimmy Roselli Story and Roman Candle: The Life of Bobby Darin; and numerous articles and magazine pieces.

If I knew almost nothing about Evanier before his latest collection of fiction, The Great Kisser, was sent to me for possible review, this was only because I haven't read all that I should have. And in reading The Great Kisser,

1 whose eight stories, though not sequential, are all related in the first person by the same narrator, I found myself wanting to know more about him. Mainly, I wanted to know if his life was identical with his narrator's.

Such curiosity is frowned on by literary criticism. Serious fiction, by definition, has always been—at least until the appearance in recent decades of the “non-fiction novel”—distinct from fact. Even when based on facts, it was understood to be an artistic distillation of them; only philistines would prefer them to the art. These are the “bad readers” scathingly rebuked by Amos Oz in his autobiographical A Tale of Love and Darkness:

What they want is “the story behind the story.” It's gossip that they want. The thrill of the voyeur. To be told what really happened to you in your life rather than what you subsequently wrote about in your books. To be finally informed, without any window dressing or bullshit, who really did what with whom, and how, and how much. Give them that and they're happy. Give them Shakespeare in love, Thomas Mann telling all. . . .

2

_____________

Yet here I was, a bad reader, wanting the gossip on David Evanier. And it wasn't that I didn't appreciate his artistry. His stories had their own accomplished voice: elegiac, wry, distracted, their narrator going restlessly from one memory to the next like a man trying to put together a smashed vase by matching piece against piece while shaking a rueful head at the damage. And the life of this narrator was a damaged one: an unhappy childhood, an anguished adolescence, an adulthood crippled by self-doubt, social isolation, botched sexual encounters, clumsy entanglements, a difficult marriage, economic dependency, a general incompetence at the business of living. The Great Kisser might have been called The Great Misser.

It was the kind of book that made one ask why, if its author was distinct from its narrator, he had chosen to create him, and how, if he was not, he had found the courage to. And yet it wasn't so much this that made me the bad reader. It was rather the third story that I read, one called “Scraps.” The story is about the narrator's fatefully unhappy teenage love affair with a girl named Rachel Bernstein, and in it was this paragraph:

I lived on 90th Street in Elmhurst, Queens. The Bender sisters, Carol and Marcia, lived six blocks away on Junction Boulevard. Both had frizzy black hair, were dizzyingly beautiful, and they were very kind girls. Carol was younger. I had never actually spoken to her, but had seen her at school and looked her up in the phonebook after finding out the first name of her father. She was so beautiful, and she had a melodic voice. I wooed her on the phone, playing Jackie Gleason records by the headpiece to get her in the mood and let her know I was a man of sophistication. Finally Carol said, “Why don't you come over?” I never called her again. But I cursed myself for my fear and cowardice.

As I say, I was reading in bed. I jumped up, ran into the living room, and shouted, “Marcia, you're not going to believe this!”

My wife, who grew up on Junction Boulevard, thought I was making it up. Then she tried remembering David Evanier and couldn't. Then she phoned her sister Carol. Carol remembered Evanier at once. She even remembered the Jackie Gleason records.

I obtained Evanier's e-mail address and sent him a note. The whole thing, he e-mailed back, was “absolutely amazing.” “I'm glad I used Marcia and Carol's real names in the book,” he wrote. “They meant a lot to me, and I barely ever spoke to them. I realize now that it was my way of honoring them.”

I took that to mean that all the other names in The Great Kisser were fictional. Still—“dizzyingly beautiful,” “very kind”: who could object?

_____________

I understood the impulse to honor, having obeyed it in a book of my own.

This was A Strange Death, published in 2005, which took me 27 years to finish—in part, I realized once I got to the end of it, because I had been waiting for the last of its major characters to die. (She did, several months before I wrote the final lines.) These characters were elderly residents of Zichron Ya'akov, one of the first Zionist farming villages to be established in Palestine toward the end of the 19th century and the town in Israel where I have lived since 1973.

My book dealt with certain events in the town's past, including a World War I spy ring and my discovery (or so I thought) of the murder of a woman suspected of betraying it. Since the ring and its downfall formed a well-known historical episode, I could hardly change the names of the principal actors, none of whom was alive by the time I started writing. And that being the case, I reasoned, neither could I change the names of other, living residents of the town who had known these people or were their children or relatives. I couldn't write a book with half-fictional names and half-real ones, all belonging to the same families and streets—and anyway, everyone in town would have known whom the fictional names referred to.

And I had wanted to memorialize these men and women. I had spent long hours with many of them and had come to like and respect them. Theirs was a story that had been neglected in the literature on Palestinian Zionism and Israel, and I wanted to give them their due. Their names, if they didn't appear in my book, would end up as mere letters on tombstones.

But it wasn't that simple. To begin with, although the town was still a small one back in the 1970's when I collected most of the material for the book, so that just about everyone knew what I was doing, few people knew what the book was about or realized that they or what they told me might end up in it. Some might not have wanted to be in a book at all; some might have objected to the way I presented them, or to being quoted on a specific subject. The portrait that seems sympathetic to the portraitist may not strike the sitter in the same way. My main character, for instance, an old man named Epstein, was a marvelous raconteur. As I only gradually found out, however, he was also a story thief, who stole the adventures of others and told them about himself. Although he always told them better than did the person they had happened to, I knew he would be indignant if I wrote the truth.

_____________

And I wasn't exactly writing the truth, anyway. As I had originally conceived of it, A Strange Death was a work of non-fiction; yet this proved to be a slippery notion. Where did the boundary lie? If I had had three different conversations with a person that took place months or even years apart, could I condense them into one? If he or she had phrased things in a certain way, was I allowed, as long as I didn't tamper with their substance, to phrase them better? Could I, for dramatic purposes, change the order in which things had happened or been disclosed to me, or introduce events into the book's time-frame that had occurred outside it? Suppose I was describing someone with a given set of characteristics—a typical facial expression, a way of talking or of walking. Was it legitimate to insert these into specific scenes even if, in reality, I didn't remember whether I had observed them then or not?

And how did I know what I remembered and what I didn't? The fallibility of memory is a truism of our age, and I had plenty of opportunity while writing A Strange Death to note how cunning memory's tricks are. At the book's very end, for example, is a scene in which, over a lunch table, I confront Epstein with the allegation that he has known all along about the murder I have discovered. Flustered, he stalls for time by taking an extremely long sip from the glass of beer that is in front of him and then, his composure restored, denies that this is so.

Now, this lunch with Epstein certainly took place, as did his denial; several pages of notes in my original notebooks attest to that. Yet, curiously, when I went back and checked these notes in preparing the book's final draft, the long sip of beer was not in them, even though I remembered it clearly. Had I failed to record it at the time? Though possible, it wasn't likely; my notes were quite detailed. Had I imagined it? But if I had, I had done so long ago, since every draft of A Strange Death included it. Perhaps I had added it to the story at an early stage as a way of creating suspense and then, having told it so many times, in conversation and in writing, had come to believe it was true. This happens not uncommonly; something similar, I was convinced, accounted for Epstein's own stories. But did this oblige me to delete the “long sip”? I had no intention of doing so. It was too good an ending to throw away.

_____________

Memory has an artistry of its own. It not only alters “the facts” in support of our interpretations and ego needs, it does so to give them aesthetic form. And in writing A Strange Death, I was torn throughout between art and the facts. The former distorted the latter; the latter obstructed the former. Each pulled in a different direction, and I felt committed to both.

This tension drove the book forward and held it back at the same time. In a sense, it became what A Strange Death was about. Aristotle went to the essence of this tension in The Poetics when he described it as the difference between “the thing that has happened,” which is the domain of the historian, and “the kind of thing that might happen,” which is that of the epic and dramatic poet, the fiction writers of Aristotle's day. Surprisingly, given his scientific interests, he thought that the higher of the two pursuits was fiction, being “more philosophic and of graver import than history, since its statements are of the nature of universals, whereas those of history are singulars.” The historian is constrained by the circumstantial trappings of events. The fiction writer can strip these down or build them up to their essentials.

This meant that I sometimes wrote imaginary things about real people. But these lies, if such they were, were never substantive, and I scrupulously strove to keep them from becoming so. In seeking to establish that a woman had been murdered, for example, I never considered doctoring the evidence, even when it went against me. Had I done that, the book would have gone limp.

At bottom I was engaged in something far older than the “non-fiction novel.” Non-fiction has always striven to become fiction and must be held in check without choking it. Thucydides had no authorized texts of Pericles' orations before him when he wrote his history of the Peloponnesian war; what he could not remember or reconstruct from the memories of others, he had to re-create with the help of his imagination. Amos Oz's autobiography is replete with supposed memories from his childhood in which real people with real names, and ostensibly real scenes and conversations, are described with a wealth of detail that no one retains from this period of his life. You cannot read a book like A Tale of Love and Darkness without wanting to know the understandings that the author reached with himself. Its very artistry makes us the “bad readers” that it admonishes us not to be.

When A Strange Death was published, I was apprehensive. Even though there was no Hebrew edition, the book was available in Israel and was reviewed there. My wife, who had begged me to fictionalize all its names, was afraid we would be run out of town. We weren't. A few local people griped; others came up and expressed appreciation. Epstein's daughter was upset and asked to meet with me. What most bothered her was less her father's stolen stories, of which she had had an inkling, than my book's recounting of several romantic affairs he had had. Although these had taken place when he was single and did not reflect badly on his honor or on his marriage, she was piqued because he had shared intimacies with me that she, his daughter, hadn't known of. Two granddaughters of the woman I suspected of having been murdered (her children were no longer alive) got in touch with me, too. They wanted to thank me, they said, for solving a family mystery that had troubled them since childhood.

_____________

When I'm asked to review a book of short stories, I start by reading the shorter ones. If they don't interest me, I beg off. The Great Kisser has only one long story, and I left that for last.

I couldn't say that David Evanier's stories weren't interesting. You can't not want to read on in a story that begins, “I was known as the Jewish writer who hated his mother more than any other Jewish writer.” This is The Great Kisser's title story, and the title comes from an exchange in which the narrator, Michael Goldberg, talking to his mother about his childhood, tells her, “You hated me.” Protesting, she replies: “[But] you were very anxious for me to come home when you were a little boy. . . . You used to like it when I got into bed with you. You used to touch my face. Remember? And kiss. You were a great kisser.”

Michael remembers these kisses differently. When his mother embraced him, he writes, “she did it [only] to keep warm, to use me, to entice me.” Sometimes, a second later, “she would suddenly turn on me and slap me across the face. . . . I remembered her loneliness and cruelty, but nothing good about her or how she treated me. . . . [S]he resented cooking and cleaning, and gave me no money whatsoever, not a nickel. I felt she would let me starve if it was up to her.”

Michael's parents were divorced when he was young. “The Man Who Gave Up Women,” another story in the book, is about his father, an insurance salesman whose “unstinting, unflagging, devoted aim in life was to make me into a cripple.” Michael relates:

He was not a good father, but he saved my life—at the start from my mother, who would have let me go under when she and my father separated.

. . . .

There were things he insisted I must not do: f—k a woman, have a loving relationship, leave him to fend for himself “alone like a dog”—leave the Goldberg domain of sullen, rancorous, passive, silent and raging men who did mostly nothing at all.

Michael grows up to be a love-starved adolescent, hungry for attention, yet frightfully shy. Obsessed with girls, he makes desperado overtures that are doomed by his dread of failure. He is fifteen when, in “Scraps,” his first girlfriend offers herself to him:

Rachel was wearing a bathrobe, a bra, and panties. She opened her bathrobe and helped me unhook her bra. . . . She was loving, and she was hot. And I withered in her embrace and turned away. I was so afraid. . . .

I gave her up. I gave up what was most dear to me, and was introduced to the mossy cold darkness, the downward spiral of my life.

Dark and downward indeed. From now on, Michael is also haunted by the specter of impotence.

_____________

They were good, these stories. They had an unflinching confessional tone and were sometimes quite funny. They were just so painful that, normally, I wouldn't have bothered to go on. They told the history of someone destroyed by his parents and by his early experience, and I couldn't discern in them any larger significance.

But I did go on, following the adult Michael from abasement to abasement. In “Sabbath Candles on Brooklyn Bridge,” Michael lands a job with a Jewish Defense League-like organization called “Jewish Punchers” and hangs out with its office manager, a swish homosexual. The two spend most of their work day frequenting live-sex shows in Times Square. In one of them, Michael writes, “a perfumed girl in a bikini, her breasts in my nose, wiggled in my lap. . . . I tried to interest her in a conversation about Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain, but she said she wasn't into magic.”

“The Better Man” finds Michael in Los Angeles, hired to write the biography of a Hollywood producer named Hymie Stolowitz, a man of gargantuan exploits, appetites, and crudeness. Hymie addresses Michael as “little elf,” “toad,” “Hebe,” and “poof,” and causes him to muse: “[Hymie] bullied the helpless. He stole, cheated, and killed. He bought women. . . . So why was he so obviously superior to me?”

In “Rabbits in the Fields of Strangers,” Michael is again writing a commissioned biography, this time of a Holocaust survivor, Oscar Schwartz. Oscar is not Hymie. He is a quiet, modest man. But he, too, makes Michael feel small. Whereas Oscar risked his life to save the mother and brother he loved from the Nazis, “I,” Michael says, “had piddled away my days and avoided the mean streets, the critical tests, walked away from every rite of passage. . . . what was I beside Oscar Schwartz?”

“Danny and Me” is about Michael's relationship with an autistic young man in a halfway house where Michael works. Danny has a bad habit: he stops strange women in the street and kisses them. Michael has a relationship with a prostitute. It isn't easy. He writes:

For weeks I have struggled. All these strangers, paying her. At the end of our session, she walks around the room with the phone, answer her messages, whispering, purring, and laughing. She complained that my messages on her machine are too long. “That one about Céline and Gogol took up half my tape,” Helen said. “. . . I put my energy into you and I lose my concentration in other areas where I have to survive. This business can be pretty horrendous. A guy made me be a dog today.”

_____________

That left one last story, the long one. Called “The Tapes,” it tells the tale of Michael's marriage to a woman named Karen. The two meet in the early 1970's in Vancouver, where both are teaching literature. Michael, a would-be writer from New York, has broken up with his girlfriend in Manhattan. Karen, from a staid WASP family in Oregon, is married to a dull, bossy man much older than she; falling in with Michael and his friends, a “bunch of hippies and radicals and cokeheads,” she sees in him her “Jewish, New York messiah,” who is “going to give her all she'd missed out on.” They have an affair, Karen's husband kills himself when he finds out about it, and Karen and Michael marry—not because Michael wants to, but because Karen threatens suicide, too, if he refuses. He gets through the wedding ceremony, he tells us, “on tranquilizers and vodka.”

This is not the stuff happy marriages are made of, especially not when they come with the extra baggage of a divorcee's rebellious son. Michael takes the two of them back to New York with him, where he fails to get along with the boy, dreams of other women, struggles unsuccessfully to write a book, leads a chaotically depressed life, leaves making a living to Karen, and fights with her all the time. Karen supports the household while sinking into alcoholism. She nags Michael, mothers him, and loves him with a devotion that only makes him feel more worthless and guilty.

Dark, dark, dark!

But then something unexpected happens. A little light starts to burn and gets brighter. Actually, we've already glimpsed it on the story's first page, where Michael declares, as he launches his account: “Now I love my wife Karen as she had wanted me to love her then.” But we've soon forgotten this as his woes pile up. Finally, after long years of misery in New York, it returns. Michael and Karen's marriage, having hit bottom, miraculously begins to straighten itself out.

This is mostly Karen's doing. No matter what Michael does to drive her away from him, she will not give up on him or on their relationship. She hangs in there. She goes on loving him. And because this is what is needed to heal his damaged soul, slowly he mends. He learns to work and to take responsibility for himself. He gradually acquires self-respect. Many years into his marriage, he falls in love with his wife for the first time. And she too changes, gives up her dependency on drink, goes back to school, and acquires a profession.

“This is a story of many kisses,” Michael says, a remark that applies to the whole of The Great Kisser. And “The Tapes” ends:

On New Year's morning I awoke to Karen's crying softly.

“I dreamt we were in the Caribbean, doing a native dance together,” she said. “You didn't like the dance, and you walked off.

“I was walking with another guy, but then I said to him, ‘Do you know where my Michael is?’ ”

“And I woke up so relieved to find you beside me.”

Later, I heard her crying again behind the bathroom door.

I knocked and she opened it. “Even in that idyllic setting,” she said, “I knew no other man would be enough for me. I need you so much.”

And she trembled in my arms as she had trembled when we met, thirty years before.

Several pages before this, Michael has told us, circling back to the story's opening:

My wife Karen has the courage of a lion and goodness with no subtext. She has repaired herself and has become a psychologist whose presence is cherished by her colleagues and patients. What crippled and inhibited her is gone. She looks directly at me; she listens; she is not afraid. Her physical beauty is more intense than when she was young. I watch her read in her reflective beauty, and she is the person now I wanted then.

And me? I rose out of the rubble too.

And so Michael and Karen's marriage is not only a story of suffering and degradation. It is also one of redemption.

_____________

This is not a happy ending stuck on at the end like the tail on a donkey at a birthday party. Michael and Karen have earned it; so has Evanier's prose. We believe in their happiness because we have believed in their wretchedness, and it is the same honest voice that relates both. Since we did not feel that it was lying to us before, we do not feel that it is lying to us now.

Retracing one's steps from “The Tapes” to The Great Kisser's other stories, one sees, easily overlooked on first reading, that the little light burns in them, too, often only at the end. In “Sabbath Candles on the Brooklyn Bridge,” it is literal. Rising from his seat in a sex dive, Montague Feist, Michael's boss at Jewish Punchers, says: “Let's get the f—k out of here. It's Shabbos. Where can we get some candles?” These obtained and lit, Michael narrates, “we walked slowly across the bridge, past the glittering city, looking down into the harbor and the National Cold Storage Company, and toward Brooklyn.”

In truth, this is corny. But elsewhere, we're persuaded. Cleaning out his mother's apartment after her death in “The Great Kisser,” Michael finds his birth announcement, which she has kept all these years. He is touched, although—and this is why we trust him—not to the point of exclamation marks or beyond sarcasm. His last words are: “She loved me. What do you know.”

His final parting from his father takes place outside the latter's old-age home:

The cab was waiting at the front door. I held my father and kissed him.

“You're a good boy, Michael.” I got into the cab, closed the door, and looked through the window.

Planted solidly on the ground, his cane digging into the earth, not smiling, my father surveyed the cab and held up his left hand firmly in farewell.

I turned to the cab driver.

“He's still watching out for you,” he said.

Here, too, the ambiguity undercuts all sentimentality. The cab driver may just be trying to be friendly. But he may also be observant enough to have seen something that Michael, though his lifelong anger at his father has obscured it, has really known all along.

It is, after all, only half the job to realize that you have also loved the parents whom you think you have always hated. The other half is to realize that the parents you think have always hated you have loved you too.

De profundis. “Out of the depths have I cried. If you, Lord, shouldest mark iniquities, who shall stand?”

_____________

Fiction always strives to become non-fiction. When we believe in a story, it is as though it has really happened.

This is why, according to Aristotle, it is permissible for there to be real names and characters in a tragic drama in which there are imaginary characters and events too, since, unlike comedy, which is about “men worse than average” who are easily believed in, tragedy taxes our credulity by relating the extraordinary. Hence, Aristotle writes, tragedians “still adhere to the historic names, and for this reason: what convinces us is the possible. Now, whereas we are not yet sure as to the possibility of that which has not happened, that which has happened is manifestly possible, otherwise it would not have happened.” Even “one or two known names, the rest being inventions,” can do the trick.

But of course, David Evanier could not possibly have known that the person his book was sent to for review would be married to Marcia Bender from Junction Boulevard. He could not possibly have known that even one single reader of The Great Kisser would recognize the names of the two Bender sisters. (There are three, actually, but the youngest, Roberta, does not appear in “Scraps.”)

To what shall we compare it? To a note put in a bottle, cast into the waves, and washed up on a distant shore at the feet of a man who is about to throw it away when he sees that he is the husband of a woman mentioned in it?

Or perhaps to a man who claims that he has descended into a cave in which he has gotten lost and wandered on and on in the mossy cold darkness. Long after he has escaped from this darkness he invites someone to tour the cave with him by flashlight, and when they get to a hidden cranny—there, carved on a stone, is the name of this person's wife.

A story, no?

_____________


Footnotes

1 Rager Media, 171 pp., $24.95

2 This passage occurs in Chapter 5 of the Hebrew edition of Oz's book. The English translation, which is abridged in parts, does not contain it.

_____________


About the Author

Hillel Halkin is a columnist for the New York Sun and a veteran contributor to COMMENTARY. Portions of the present essay were delivered at Northwestern University in March as the Klutznick Lecture in Jewish Civilization.




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