Book Reviews

Fabulous Small Jews, by Joseph Epstein

This article appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle in July 2003.

By Joseph Epstein
Houghton Mifflin, 2003. 352 pp.

Reviewed by Eve Kushner

A stellar, prolific essayist, Joseph Epstein inclines toward autobiographical writing, even with fiction. Accordingly, most protagonists in his newest story collection, “Fabulous Small Jews,” are Jewish male Chicagoans. But they fall into two types—highbrow thinkers and ordinary schmoes. Epstein clearly sympathizes with the thinkers, which makes sense; for years he taught writing and literature at Northwestern and edited the American Scholar, the Phi Beta Kappa publication. Consequently, his academic stories snap into perfect focus, yielding sentences like, “He carried himself … tweedily.” (233) It’s less obvious why Epstein pushed himself to write the schmoe stories, which blur together unmemorably.

Like Jack Nicholson’s character in “About Schmidt,” the uncultivated sorts in Epstein’s book are over-the-hill fuddy-duddies, emerging from decades of oblivion with no idea of how to reestablish connections in a world seemingly gone mad. These men have little to offer women now. One character figures his personal ad would read, “Man in middle fifties, balding, not in very good shape, fairly well-to-do, not previously married and probably unmarriageable.” (180) They putz around at health clubs and delis, musing about how they haven’t made much of their lives.

By contrast, Epstein’s intellectual characters wrestle with fascinating moral dilemmas. One man contemplates ending the life of his senile father, and others wonder whether to publish material that could ruin dead colleagues’ reputations. These stories often read like essays hung on flimsy fictional constructs, but no matter—they prove utterly compelling. The real Epstein breaks through here, producing protagonists whose minds brim with life.