GOLDKORN TALES by Leslie Epstein
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Like The Steinway Quintet Plus Four (1976), this three-novella collection begins with ""The Steinway Quintet"" (here revised and expanded): the black-comic tale of a grim Lower East Side holdup at the old-world Steinway Restaurant--Puerto Rican gunmen, hostages, atrocities, supernatural intervention--as recalled by elderly musician Leib Goldkorn, ""a Viennese of some culture, a nonbeliever"" who turns the incident into a subversive, cartoonish microcosm of Holocaust themes. This time, however, Goldkorn remains as Epstein's narrator throughout--for further farcevariations on such dark matters as the demise of European-Jewish culture, the identity-crisis of Jewish refugees, the post-Holocaust dilemmas of the Jewish ""nonbeliever,"" and the place of culture and art (especially music) in an ugly, fearsome contemporary world. In ""Music of the Spheres,"" Goldkorn--unemployed since the Steinway Restaurant disaster, still suffering over the theft (rather too obviously symbolic) of Ms precious flute--is reduced to playing the musical glasses for vulgar street-crowds near Ms Upper West Side apartment; so he returns to the reopened Steinway in search of work--only to find himself caught up in a bizarre production of Othello that combines, as in a nightmare, the Yiddish theater (Goldkorn's now-dying wife was an actress), the belief in God (Iago as Satan), more Holocaust echoes, and the European-Jewish disdain for ""Schwartzers."" (At the fadeout Goldkorn recognizes the ""tuneful sounds"" in a Harlem street-scene.) And, in the longest story, ""The Magic Flute,"" the annihilation of European-Jewish culture takes center-stage with blatant emphasis: musician Goldkorn has reached an ultimate low, making percussion ""art"" out of his rhythmic shoe-shining in the Steinway men's room ("" 'Any requests?' I asked""); the Steinway's new owner is mixing meat and dairy (!), demanding that the musicians play ""the Der fliegende Hollander potpourri,"" installing a jukebox; so the victims of this Holocaust successfully fight back--hiring hit-man Happy Levine to murder the owner (who turns out to be an ex-Nazi), recovering their pride. . . and Goldkorn's long-lost flute. Unlike ""The Steinway Quintet,"" which slides from realism into fable with sly delicacy, these two new novellas are aggressively fantastical--with a dreamlike wackiness that can diminish involvement. The excessive heaping-up of resonant themes and symbolic happenings (Goldkorn also has a long-dead, quasi-resurrected daughter) is something of a problem throughout. And Goldkorn's allusive, operatic narration (reminiscent, as so often with Epstein, of Bellow) will only make its rich, full impact on readers familiar with the culture-in-peril here. Still, while the title story and Epstein's King of the Jews remain his most powerfully irreverent transfigurations of Holocaust material, these new variations offer a ghastly/comic parade of provocative juxtapositions, haunting images, and hilarious moments--from the discovery of Velveeta in ""the home of the Roumanian broiling"" to the Lithuanian waiters' attempt to disguise themselves as reveling Irishmen (""Now we shall sing all together the 'Glockamorrah'"").

Pub Date: April 18th, 1985
Publisher: Dutton