Literary influence suffuses, and intermittently cramps, the 17 nonetheless very readable stories from the former American Scholar editor and cultural critic (Snobbery, 2002, etc.).
Their turf is Chicago, and their characters are middle-aged to elderly urban Jews bedeviled by waning or vanished physical and mental powers and the further debilitating spectacle of encroaching mortality. Visions of Bellow’s loquacious hustlers and Singer’s morose, sardonic retirees dance through the reader’s head in such generously detailed stories as “Felix Emeritus,” about a Holocaust survivor and literary scholar whose considerable experience of life is unexpectedly broadened when he enters an old-age home, and “Family Values,” which incisively contrasts an aging underachiever with his charismatic, compulsively dishonest older brother. Epstein’s clarity and directness are also reminiscent of Louis Auchincloss, particularly in two subtly convoluted stories focused on both the legacy and the image of Henry James: a revelation of the moral choices made by an eminent critic’s disciple (“The Executor”) who must deal with his late mentor’s accomplished but defamatory poems; and a reconstruction of the sensibility of a revered author who might have been a closeted anti-Semite (“The Master’s Ring”). A few pieces are thinly developed, or trail away inconclusively (e.g., “Coming In with Their Hands Up,” “Freddy Duchamp in Action,” “Saturday Afternoon at the Zoo with Dad”). And several are gems, notably a fine tale about a self-effacing bachelor’s wary approach to late-life love and marriage (“Don Juan Zimmerman”); an explicit homage to Bellow’s Herzog in the figure of a failed poet whose habit of sending unsigned crank messages to strangers condemns him to solipsism and loneliness (“Postcards”); and the lovely “A Loss for Words,” about an aged widow in the early stages of Alzheimer’s who forms an emotionally sustaining “doubles-team” with a crippled former tennis player.
A mixed second collection (after The Goldin Boys, 1991), but, on the whole, Epstein’s most successful foray into fiction yet.