A SPECIAL DESTINY by Seymour Epstein


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From Epstein (The Dream Museum, Leah, A Pillar of Salt, etc.), an unfocused, rather mushy nostalgia piece in which a playwright remembers a friendship that changed his life. As the novel begins, in 1938, the narrator, Saul Klein, is a young man living in the Bronx with his impossibly combative family and working as a salesman of novelty Items while studying to be an accountant. One day he meets another salesman, Eugene Strauss, and is introduced to another word--even another universe. Strauss is the son of German Jews who fled Hitler and settled in Washington Heights; he's sophisticated, brilliant, and a would-be playwright. Caught up utterly in his spell, Saul drops accounting and decides to become a playwright himself. At Eugene's urging he moves into the Strauss family apartment, has an affair with Eugene's widowed mother, Anna, and writes a play that is eventually produced off-Broadway. But he soon realizes that Eugene is really a charming manipulator, a puppet-master when it comes to those who love him--he forces Saul into the arms of Ruth, a girl he's just jilted, and there's even the hint that Eugene knew his mother Anna would seduce his friend, and wanted to see it happen. Despite high-flown literary talk, Eugene also grabs at a chance to go out to Hollywood and write movies--he does this, abandoning Anna, and she kills herself. Saul, finally fed up, breaks from Eugene. In a kind of coda, Epstein hastily summarizes what happens to the two friends: Saul becomes a moderately successful playwright married to a moderately successful actress, and Eugene, not unpredictably, gives up writing and assumes the mantle of a Hollywood producer. Saul runs into him again in the early 60's, and the two strike up an uneasy acquaintanceship until Eugene dies of cancer some years later, telling Saul not to feel ""guilty,"" although guilty of what it's hard to tell, since the entire novel is soaked through with Saul's vague, spongy guilt at the very notion of being alive. All in all, a highly sentimentalized and arbitrarily plotted attempt at a journey through the chambers of the heart.

Pub Date: July 1st, 1986
Publisher: Donald Fine