Sunday, November 19, 2017

'The Murmurs of Peevishness'

Like most of us, the people in Joseph Epstein’s stories learn life’s woeful lessons not from books or Youtube but the hard way, by living them. They get cheated, lied to, stolen from and left alone. Their lives tend to be buffered and safely middle-class, not noirish, and they seldom get raped, shot or strung out on dope. Those are melodramatic fates borrowed from movies, pulp novels and newspapers, and most of us won’t experience them, though we hardly remain immune to lesser injuries. “Schlifkin on My Books,” in the first of Epstein’s four story collections, The Goldin Boys (1991), begins with suicide and mistaken identity, and concludes like this:

“Last week our accountant came in to close out our books at the end of our fiscal year. Among other details, I learned that the $178 Schlifkin owed was a write-off in the category of a bad debt. Schlifkin was finally off my books. For the first time I spoke to the accountant about retirement and what would be involved in turning the business over to my nephew. I must be feeling my age. I’m thinking seriously about getting out. I think maybe I’ve had enough.”  

Conclusively inconclusive, like life. Rooted in the mundane business of life. Weariness, regret, a late lesson learned. I was happy on Saturday to find a first edition of The Goldin Boys (“slightly foxed”) for sale at Kaboom Books in Houston. The original cover price: $19.95. I paid: $10. (The bookshop owner has a nice first edition of Thomas Berger’s first novel, Crazy in Berlin: $185. I salivated discreetly.) Now I have all of Epstein’s stories. For me, it’s rare to read contemporary short fiction. Most of it seems trivial, little more than plotless first-person gestures, even when written in the third-person. Epstein’s stories are mutedly comic and seem touched by what William Maxwell called the “breath of life.” On this date, Nov. 19, in 1751, Dr. Johnson writes in The Rambler #175:

“It is, indeed, impossible not to hear from those who have lived longer, of wrongs and falsehoods, of violence and circumvention; but such narratives are commonly regarded by the young, the heady, and the confident, as nothing more than the murmurs of peevishness, or the dreams of dotage; and, notwithstanding all the documents of hoary wisdom, we commonly plunge into the world fearless and credulous, without any foresight of danger, or apprehension of deceit.”

[On the back cover, The Goldin Boys boasts the most unlikely pairing of blurbists I have ever seen: George V. Higgins and Helen Frankenthaler.]

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