Clever, prolific Epstein (Narcissus Leaves the Pool, 1999, etc.) turns his wit to the pernicious, universal failing previously addressed by such worthies as Edith Wharton, Tom Wolfe, Russell Lynes, and even Father Mencken, among countless others.
Dissecting snobbery in all its current manifestations, Epstein (English/Northwestern) examines the ways in which people who pursue lives of invidious comparison may judge you (and surely find you wanting) in matters of employment, education, income, affiliations, intellectual interests, spouse(s), ethnicity, favored comestibles, politics, celebrity, dogs, and, not least, progeny. Of course, a snob is Janus-faced. Note the contortions necessary to look up to paragons who are above contempt while simultaneously looking down on the dopes beneath consideration. A pretty slick slope, indeed. The classification of snobs as slobs or nobs is undertaken with fine spirit by our snobographer. Undeniably, perhaps unavoidably, it’s all a bit self-referential, with personal dislikes and dropped names. There’s wonderful dissing of the likes of Susan Sontag, Joe Alsop, Tina Brown, and the ineffable Mr. Vidal. The New York Review of Books and The New Yorker figure prominently. The author takes the role, not of Eustace Tilley, but of a Jewish innocent in Snobland, while he confesses to a smidgen of Anglophilia. Mark the passing use of such Briticisms as “navvies,” “bloody,” or “a mug’s game.” On the other hand, Yiddishisms bloom too, as in “kvell,” “allrightnik,” and—happy conflation—“Vive le schmuck!” Epstein presents beautifully opinionated epigrams and judgments, sometimes off-base (is The Donald truly uninterested in joining Society?), mostly spot-on and consistently thoughtful and entertaining. There’s no cure for snobbery, but please dispense with the ostentatious Rolex, Mont Blanc, or duds by Prada and enjoy the polemics.
By a snob, of snobs, and for snobs: a nice example of the art of the essay.