Fathers and Son
By ELLIS WEINER
When John Updike died—we can still say that, right? “died”? We
don’t have to use the pseudo-spiritual, séance-hinting “passed,” do we?—people
asked me how I felt. I said, “Well, he wasn’t my favorite, but it’s sad.” This,
in stark contrast to what I said when Norman Mailer
died: “He was one of my favorites. It’s sad.”
And it’s true. Updike wasn’t my favorite, much as I marveled at his ability to bestow
a glow of heightened sensuousness on inanimate objects (or even animate
objects, e.g., a woman’s breasts) in his peerless descriptions. What put me off
was his, and/or his characters’, Protestant religiosity. When Harry Angstrom,
masturbating in bed beside his sleeping wife, chooses not to do so while lying
on his back because that makes him closer to, or more visible to (forgive me, I
read it years ago) God, I thought, “Oh, please.” And I meant it to sting.
Still, what I also said about Updike was something like, “He was one of the
last of the generation for whom novels were important.” I may not have actually
said “for whom” but you get the idea. Because he was. It was my father’s
generation, which meant that he, and Mailer, and others, comprised my
generation’s—or, at least, my—literary
role models, heroes, and exemplars.
What “others”? Oh, you know—what, back then, we would have called “the Jewish
Mafia” or, as Mad Magazine calls its
roster of contributors, “The Usual Gang of Idiots”—Philip Roth (still with us
as of this writing, th-nk G-d), Saul Bellow,
Joseph Heller, Bernard Malamud, E.L. Doctorow,
a few others. And yes, I know: we just finished saying that Updike wasn’t
Jewish. But at least he made a good faith effort to pretend to be Jewish in the Bech books, which is more than you can
say for, you know, John Cheever.
Bear in mind that my thrall to these writers wasn’t just some personal quirk. So
pervasive and significant was their work, in fact, that a Hollywood movie was
released in 1968 “about” them. You kids are too young to remember, but Sidney
Lumet directed Bye Bye Braverman, about a group of Jewish authors, and their various struggles to
attend the funeral of one of their own. Yes, a feature film about Jewish
writers going to a funeral: as we say in another context, Never Again.
Their books—Portnoy’s Complaint; The Armies of the Night; Herzog; Catch-22; The Fixer; The Book of Daniel; etc., etc.—were what
“literature” meant to me.
The Malamud I read because my father suggested it and it felt fundamental and
important, like bread. Still, what kind of teenager gets excited over bread? And
the Doctorow (pre-Ragtime, Loon Lake, and Billy Bathgate) came later.
It was the others—Mailer, Roth, Bellow, Heller—that hit me while I was in high
school and left a lasting mark. The question is, why? Was it because they were,
like me, Jewish? It would be nice (in the Jewish-mother sense of “nice,” i.e.,
dutiful) to say yes, but the truth is, only partly because of that.
Of course, like the result of giving chicken soup to the man who had just
suffered a heart attack, it didn’ hoit. When Alexander Portnoy (speaking of
masturbation) marveled at “Alice,” the golden, blonde shiksa aspiring majorette, who, when she tossed her baton in the
air and then dropped it when it fell, chided herself out loud with “Oh, Alice!”
I could relate to his fascination. When Herzog wrote letter after letter to the
great and the near great, living and passed, taking issue with their authority,
that seemed Jewish and outsider-ish and, therefore, exactly right to me.
Then again, Mailer was Jewish but didn’t write about Jewishness, and the same
can be said of the Joseph Heller of Catch-22.
So what did the work of these four have in common, at least as apprehended by
my exquisite high-school smart-young-man/idiot self?
I would say they all presented an angry, indignant critique of the received
world, of American society as it is encountered by an intelligent, skeptical,
and self-aware (secular) sensibility. And that, bubbe, is très Jewish. Your Updikes, your Cheevers—when they describe the
malfeasances of the world, it is more in regret, or a poignant spirit of
reconciliation, than in anger. For them, humanity is defined as being Fallen
but also pre-Saved, because Redemption is possible. It’s a bad news/good news
transaction that asks only that you respect the system.
It’s the opposite with my Jewish forebears. For them, Society is Fallen, not
because Man is essentially and metaphysically sinful, but because people are imperfect
and their institutions are fucked up.
But this state of affairs is at least a human creation. This means it’s at
least partially reparable—and by other humans, i.e., us. Good thing, too, since
Redemption isn’t on the menu. So you may as well say what you want about the
system, your mother, your neighbor, and yourself. Even Bellow, whose status as
an officially-sanctioned, society-approved wise man was sealed with his Nobel,
created characters who took issue
Go be shocked that that might appeal to a secular, liberal Jewish teenager coming
of age in the era of Vietnam and the “counter-culture.” I graduated high school
in ’68 and college in ’72. The prime years of my intellectual development were
spent surrounded by the aggressive, concerted, and loud (not to mention
psychedelic) overthrow of every American institution and every conventional
figure and source of authority, from the political parties and the presidency
(Mailer) to the military (Heller) to academia and the cult of erudition
(Bellow) to Jewish-American culture (Roth).
But the anger, the militant critique, is only half of it. What thrilled me as a
student, and does to this day, is the humor.
Of Roth nothing need be said (other than the fact I had him for a world-lit course
at Penn in 1971, where he amused/scandalized us by remarking that he didn’t
care for Death in Venice, finding it
merely to be “a story about a man who afraid to ask a boy if he can buy him a
lemonade”). Bellow was never hilarious, but the writing always glittered with
wit. Mailer could be a scream, especially when playing it straight. And I
literally fell down laughing at Catch-22
when I first read it, however much I found it impossible to re-read 10 years
Of course, by then I was doing it myself, writing what I sometimes thought of
as “applied social criticism” in a quest for boffs and yuks in National Lampoon, where we—the New Gang
of Idiots—made fun of everything not nailed down and then made fun of the
nails. A piece of writing that could make me laugh, seriously and out loud, has
always seemed like a small miracle, a magic trick that really did involve
magic, a bit of applied alchemy in which mere thought, and silent print, could
elicit a boisterous, visceral jolt of physical pleasure—and without first
having to stimulate tumescence!
It still does. I first learned that such a thing was possible (as we all did)
reading Mad. But it was when I read
what Portnoy did to his family’s dinner, or how “the colonel with the big fat
mustache” explains what “justice” is in Catch-22
(go here at once
and read the whole thing),or Mailer’s description of
how they smothered the swamps and everglades of south Florida with concrete to
create the city of Miami (“Is it so dissimilar from covering your poor pubic
hair with adhesive tape for
fifty years?”) that I learned how a richer, subtler (the genius of that use of
“poor”!), more intellectually and emotionally satisfying way of doing it was
Novels aren’t as important to American society as they were back then. Neither
are movies, jazz albums, rock albums, epic poems, plays, musicals, operas,
paintings, sculpture, happenings, performance art, or “multi-media
presentations.” It may be that our cultural markets are so fragmented, our
media are so narrow-castingly specifiable, and our assimilationist values are
so undermined by identity politics, that nothing ever will be again. The most
potent, controversial artistic event of the last 10 years was that 30-second
blackout as Tony Soprano and family got settled in that booth in the diner. Today
all the funny, angry Jews want to write for The
Simpsons or The Daily Show. And why not?
So R.I.P., J.U., and have a nice afterlife. As for the landsmen in whose steps I stumblingly followed: see you, sooner or
later, in the Heaven none of us believe in.