Noted editor Solotaroff picks up where Truth Comes in Blows (1998) left off, describing with compassionate acuity the difficult early adult years that led to his vocation as a literary journalist.
He begins in the summer of 1948, when the 19-year-old Navy veteran meets Lynn Ringler, “a glowing girl with a sexy-arty look and a brooding inner life.” Their romance is bumpy during his first two years as an undergraduate at Ann Arbor, and even after they marry, in 1950, she’s prone to severe depression, not helped by their bumpy sex life and Solotaroff’s uncertainty about whether he should commit himself to fiction (at which several friends tell him he’s not so hot) or a scholarly career, for which he is better suited but unenthusiastic. Two sons, his graduate work at the University of Chicago, and extreme poverty further strain their relationship, which Solotaroff analyzes candidly and, insofar as an outsider can judge, fairly. He writes with equal vividness and perception about mid-20th-century academic stars (Morton Dauwen Zabel, Leslie Fiedler) and ordinary folks (an East Chicago working-class student provides the most moving scene). The best portions here, though, delineate the author’s struggle to reconcile his need to make a living, which a university professorship can provide, with his love for the exciting new literature being published by writers like Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, and grad-school pal Philip Roth. Their work demonstrates that the ethnic origins Solotaroff shares could be the stuff of great fiction, though he is increasingly aware he will not be the one writing it. Then an essay on Roth leads to an article about Jewish-American writers in The Times Literary Supplement and lunch in New York with Norman Podhoretz, who offers him a job as associate editor at Commentary. The die is cast, but his marriage survives only two more years.
Meets the very high standard set by Alfred Kazin’s Starting Out in the Thirties for describing a young man’s intellectual coming-of-age with nuanced honesty and genuine emotion. Let’s hope Solotaroff doesn’t take five more years to get to New American Review.