Fathers and Son


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 with everything.

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 later.

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 possible.

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.