Selling the Story
By DEBRA BRUNO
By Edward Schwarzschild
344 pages. Algonquin Books. $23.95.
When it comes to literature,
we believe in some characters while others leave us with a quizzical frown. Either
we buy into a story line, or we snap the volume closed and head for the
metaphorical customer service department. In the case of Edward Schwarzschild’s
first novel, Responsible Men, I’m not
quite ready to take out my checkbook.
Schwarzschild does get some things right. He produces an entertaining rogue’s
gallery of three-going-on-four generations of salesmen (and occasional con men).
His characters get into a variety of jams as they jump mindlessly into odd
conversations and follow crazy whims. We know these guys: each time they seem
to be getting it together, they do something so incredibly stupid you wonder
why you even had hope for them in the first place. The main character, Max
Wolinsky, can’t resist taking a middle-of-the-night leak on his ex-wife’s
flower garden. He betrays his Florida girlfriend for a woman he picks up in a
bowling alley. His son, Nathan, allows himself to be enlisted in a troop of
pyromaniac, kosher-keeping Boy Scouts who seem to be more about selling knives
to raise money for the synagogue than about doing good deeds. Max’s father,
Caleb, takes a late-night excursion on his dead brother’s ride-on scooter,
ending up alone and vulnerable in a bad part of town.
Schwarachild's salesmen don't rely on the Willy Loman-style smile-and-handshake
to close a deal; they’re always looking for the big score, honest or not. They
end up living in musty old basement apartments, and doing a quick dry shave in
The men here all have the best of intentions. They mean to be good fathers,
they mean to be responsible. They want to do the right thing. And yet, over and
over, they slip. They drink too much, they say angry things, they tell
themselves that if they could just pull off this one last con game they’ll get
out of the business. That sense of resolution followed by failure is on the
Schwarzschild also gives us a touching vision of loss. Abe is a stroke victim,
and we get a vivid sense of a clever man now trapped inside his body, a man who
can see and understand a lot but who can say very little. Later, when Caleb
first realizes his brother Abe is dead (yes, the brothers’ names are
dangerously close to Cain and Abel), he’s distraught and confused. Later, at
Abe’s funeral, the gathering of friends and family, and the sense of loyalty
and grief that brings everyone together feel both right and moving.
But there are far too many moments that fall short, moments in which the reader
thinks, “Huh?” When Max decides to urinate on his ex-wife’s garden, he wets a
flowerbed composed of tulips, roses, and lilies. That could happen only in a
flower show. Tulips bloom in the early spring, roses mid-summer, and lilies at
the end, at least in the northeastern climate of Pennsylvania, where this novel
Here’s another misstep: When a young bar mitzvah boy falters during his Torah
chanting, the rabbi has a disconcerting response: “Then there was Jeff Gluck,
who froze after losing his place in the middle of his Torah portion. He went
wide-eyed, staring at the congregation as if he were suddenly comatose, and he
didn’t snap out of it until his rabbi banged a hand against the podium and
said, loudly, ‘Come on, boy, be a man.’” Really? Has anyone ever heard a rabbi
do that? Wouldn’t the rabbi just point out the word and chant with the child
for a line or two?
And then there are the names. This might be my baby-boomer bias here, but I
think some names belong to certain generations. Thus, the main character, Max,
who’s supposed to be roughly middle-aged, has the right name for someone of his
father’s or his son’s generation. And Max’s father is named Caleb. Honestly, I
don’t know Calebs in my parents’ generation. At first, I thought Max was the
father and Caleb the son.
Max dates a woman named Estelle. Any Estelle has to be at least 80 years old. But
perhaps Schwarzchild runs with a different sort of crowd than I do.
Besides the names, or maybe because of the names, it’s hard to put this novel
in a time and a place. I imagine it’s contemporary, but we keep getting
nostalgic little nods to the past. Many of the characters love to bowl. Thugs
beat each other up like thugs in a James Cagney movie. Nobody seems to watch
much TV or refer to current events, so it’s nearly impossible to place this in
today’s America. I can’t see these
people, and I wonder about the clothes they’re wearing, the magazines they’re
reading, the news they hear. The whole thing is just a little sepia-tinted.
Granted, this is a first novel, and I suspect that Schwarzschild will grow as a
writer. He’s one of the shining stars of the New York State Writers Institute
and teaches at the University of Albany, SUNY. One of the most powerful
chapters in the book, “No Rest for the Middleman,” won Moment Magazine’s short story contest a few years ago. And his work
does have a certain energy and charm. He’ll get there soon. He’s just not there