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After his sharp, ruefully amusing debut (Years Out, 1976), Feld's fiction took a somber turn: Only Shorter (1982) was, despite darkly humorous moments, a stark and bravely unsentimental close-up of terminal illness. Now, however, fulfilling the jaunty promise of Years Out, Feld has come up with a zesty, shrewd, Chekhovian comedy of errors: rich yet compact dramatization of the notion that "no good deed goes unpunished." The hapless title character is Charlie Shapes (pronounced "Shap-piss"), the middle-aged, Jewish owner of a store for top-grade stereo equipment, located in the ex-urbs an hour or two north of New York City. Shapes is a music-lover, an amateur photographer, a sensitive but unpretentious soul--and a kind of modern holy-fool whose sweet intentions lead him mostly astray. He has gently tolerated wife Elise's severe obesity and agoraphobia, but now she's suddenly dead, down in Florida, from a heart attack. He's given his lackluster son-in-law Bennett a good job at the store--but now he suspects (wrongly, as it happens) that Bennett is cheating on Shapes' daughter Amy. (Actually, it's Amy who's doing the cheating.) Furthermore, three problematic characters have just entered Shapes' overextended life: the store's new saleswoman, a "craftsperson"/therapist with big ideas about revamping the business; local judge Leona, object of Shapes' timid sexual fantasies; and, above all, Vitaly ("Al") Roitmann, a psychopathic Russian-Jewish ÇmigrÇ and recent jailbird whom Shapes attempts to help--in getting a place to stay, finding assorted jobs (e.g., wrapping cheese in Woodstock), and reuniting with his estranged young daughter Nina. Shapes gets taken by one and all, of course, and there's finely blended farce and pathos in his innocent misunderstanding of the vile behavior of others. Equally hilarious are the set-pieces involving folk-art poseurs, trendy religions, or abrasive rabbis--with exquisite evocations of social mistakes and embarrassment. But, thanks in part to Feld's tough, gorgeous prose and pungent dialogue, the novel never spins away into giddiness or cartoon: the Bennett/Amy wrangles are truly harrowing, and Shapes has great dignity--spirituality, even--in his modestly lyrical approach to life. Richly ironic, thickly textured, elegant yet earthy, too: small-scale comic fiction of rare subtlety, depth, and charm.

Pub Date: May 23rd, 1989
ISBN: 86547-367-6
Publisher: North Point/Farrar, Straus and Giroux
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