Jay Neugeboren isn’t a household name, but it doesn’t matter. The New York author has published more than 15 books over the course of 45 years, and in the process, he’s gained a reputation as a “writer’s writer.” That term shouldn’t be read as an attempt to damn with faint praise—he might not be as famous as some of his compeers, like Philp Roth or John Updike, but it’s becoming increasingly harder to argue that he’s any less talented. His career reminds me of musician Brian Eno’s famous quote about one of the most influential bands in rock ’n’ roll history: “The first Velvet Underground album only sold 10,000 copies, but everyone who bought it formed a band.”* It’s hard to read Neugeboren’s flawless, unpretentious prose, and not want to pick up a pen yourself.
Did you catch the first Bookslut column for Kirkus?
Neugeboren’s new short story collection, You Are My Heart, serves as a convincing piece of evidence of the author’s rare talent. Ranging in setting from Eisenhower-era Brooklyn to modern-day France, the 11 stories in this book have at least one thing in common—they’re all dazzlingly smart and deeply felt, but never show-offy or mawkish. Neugeboren’s characters are doctors, literary critics and students; they’re forced to deal with racism, violence, death, cancer and AIDS. There aren’t too many writers who could resist the easy appeal to obvious emotions to which these situations lend themselves, but Neugeboren does, and he makes it look effortless.
Take, for example, “Overseas,” the story of Willy, a 10-year-old boy whose father, a World War II veteran, comes home to an alcoholic wife who’s cheating on him with the boy’s violent uncle, Joe. If you’re an author looking for easy pathos, that plot is the equivalent of a Wiffle ball resting on a tee. Neugeboren, though, goes for a more subtle—and much more effective—approach:
After Joe left, my mother tried to make it up to me. She kept telling me how sorry she was—how if life was perfect we’d all be angels floating on clouds above the rooftops. She drank her glass of whiskey in one swallow…
“Jesus, Willy,” she said...“What am I gonna do, huh? What am I gonna do?”
The story ends where it has to end, without any promises of cosmic fairness, without any moral cop-outs. The same is true for the title story, about a Jewish high school student in 1950s Brooklyn, who falls in love with an African-American girl in his neighborhood. Of course, the couple is subjected to racism. It’s not fair, and everybody knows it now, but it’s also unfair, and ahistorical, for an author to pull a happy ending out of a hat, just to spare the reader’s sensibilities. To paraphrase a tautology we’ve all heard too many times: it was what it was.
Despite the differences in setting, it’s possible to read You Are My Heart as a novel, and you have to wonder if maybe Neugeboren—even subconsciously—intended it as such. There are unmistakable parallels in the stories “Here or There,” “Comfort” and “The Turetzky Trio.” All three have a character who’s a middle-aged AIDS researcher. In the first two, the characters—Peter and Saul, respectively—have adult daughters prone to making bad decisions when it comes to boyfriends. In the second two, the characters—Saul and Paul—share an infatuation with the same classical pianist. Are they really different at all? Are they iterations of the same person? It wouldn’t be the first time in literature, of course, that a Saul became a Paul. Sixty years and almost 4,000 miles might divide pre-civil rights era Brooklyn and National Front-era France (which Neugeboren describes chillingly in “Summer Afternoon”), but the hate and intolerance look the same. Maybe, after all that, we do, too.
At the end of the story “A Missing Year: Letter to My Son,” a character reflects on the short stories of Henry James. “What had impressed, though, was that the stories were informed…by a remarkable and remarkably unexpected singularity of mind,” he writes, and that’s as good a description as any for the beautiful stories in You Are My Heart. “Books too loud to ignore” is the motto of Two Dollar Radio, the wonderful indie press that publishes this volume. You might not think “loud” when you read Neugeboren’s sometimes-understated stories, but as Henry James and The Velvet Underground both taught us, sometimes quiet is louder than loud could ever be. Either way, Jay Neugeboren is music to our ears.
Michael Schaub is the managing editor of Bookslut and a frequent contributor to NPR.org. His writing has appeared in The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Portland Mercury and The Austin Chronicle, among other publications. A native of Texas, he now lives in Portland, Ore.
You Are My Heart and Other Stories
By Jay Neugeboren
Two Dollar Radio
Paperback, 192 Pages, $16.00
Released May 17, 2011
* Quoted in, among many other publications, The Independent, “The Ten Worst Rock ‘n’ Roll Comebacks,” by John Hall, July 6, 2009.