The Apathetic Bookie Joint
What strikes one first of all about Daniel Fuchs’s novels and stories, especially if they’re compared to the work of other “Jewish American” writers, is that Fuchs has no designs on his readers. No large thoughts, no postcards to deaf intellectuals, no theories about the future of the novel, not even grudges against relatives.
Fuchs is a pure novelist. He writes fiction the way other people play baseball or the cello: as if it were a sufficient occupation for a serious person. He doesn’t seem, at least in his novels and stories, to be especially concerned with transforming anything, neither society nor himself. The traditional act of imitation, putting down a picture-in-language of how people live at a certain time, a certain place absorbs him fully and may even, he writes, yield “a sense of well-being arising from the scene and the people.”
This belief in the sufficiency of rendering has hardly dominated twentieth-century writing, and it may be that a readiness to remain a “pure” novelist exacts a price, confining the work to minor possibilities. Fuchs himself is surely a minor writer, but a very good one, something pleasing in a time that does not lack major bad ones.
His career seems to have been “written” by himself. During the mid-Thirties, while still very young, he published three novels—Summer in Williamsburg, Homage to Blenholt, Low Company—which have since come to be known as the Williamsburg trilogy. Well received, they sold poorly. Fuchs was then working as a substitute school teacher in Brighton Beach in Brooklyn for $6 a day. A few of his stories were soon accepted by the better-paying magazines; next came one of those legendary offers from Hollywood; and he went. He seems not to have been an intellectual in the narrow sense of the term, so that the fear of “selling out” that was very much in the air those days troubled him less than it might have troubled others. Besides, with the hard realism of a child of the slums, he knew that if he turned down the Hollywood offer, the likely alternative—a gradual erosion of spirit through poverty and hackwork—could prove to be at least as damaging.
Since then Fuchs has remained in Hollywood, doing workmanlike scripts, and continuing occasionally to publish fiction. He must now be close to or slightly beyond seventy, which makes it entirely fitting for him to bring together, in this new book, his short fictions of the last several decades. As for the Williamsburg trilogy, that has never quite gotten its due, yet there must still be some admirers since in the last dozen or so years it has been reprinted three times, most recently in a handsome single-volume edition by Avon.
I doubt that there is another American writer, except perhaps James T. Farrell, whose controlling sensibility was so tightly bound to the years of formative experience. Williamsburg is a wretched slum in Brooklyn—it was wretched even in the Thirties. Everything in Fuchs’s work, including the more recent Hollywood stories, bears the mark of a struggle to extricate himself from that slum and then, somehow, come to peace with memories of its life. All his novels and most of his stories are dominated by a sense of place—the sense of place as it grips a man’s life and breaks him to its limits. But what makes Fuchs an exceptional writer is that in turning back to the traumas of youth, he is not only prey to memory, he is also actively developing a novelistic idea. And that idea is the power of environment to take over a segment of existence, the deep tyranny of those conditions which other American writers, especially critics, talk so airily about “transcending.” Fuchs’s young people—fantasists, innocents, millionaires-in-training—scurry about in the Williamsburg streets, looking for avenues of escape and pleasure but discovering that escape is unlikely and pleasure brief. That, apparently, is the law of Williamsburg, as later of Hollywood.
Now, all this may sound like the usual naturalist determinism of the Thirties, but it is not, at least not quite. Fuchs has no interest in accumulating defeats, he issues no calls for revolt, he indulges no theories of causation. Indeed, he offers humanity no advice. What his fiction does is to capture a certain tone of Depression life that ideological or willful writers failed to notice. His best work is marked by a sweet resignation, a tenderness in loss, that was far more prevalent during the Depression years than either Marxists or modernists cared to admit. The strangeness of living without an expectation of the future; the weightlessness of it all, as if one were suspended in time, exempt from familiar sequences of order, merely afloat through idle days; the occasional lightheaded delusion of having won sensations of freedom—all this has been rendered by Fuchs with a steadiness that few American writers can match. If you really care to know what it was like to live through the Depression years, at least in the Jewish streets of New York, Fuchs’s novels will tell you more, and more honestly, than the famous books of the period. And they will tell it in a style of candor, a sort of bruised serenity, as if he were training himself to be dispassionate about his own wounds.
Of the two dozen stories and sketches in The Apathetic Bookie Joint the earliest appeared in 1938, the latest in 1975. Ten or twelve of them hold up very well, and two of the later ones, “The Golden West” and “Twilight in Southern California,” are first-rate, worth placing beside Fitzgerald’s and West’s evocations of Hollywood frenzy. The early stories are composed with a clipped professionalism—technique out-distancing perception—that can be somewhat disconcerting. Something is lost of the sweetness of voice and comic playfulness one remembers from Fuchs’s novels. These early stories have an odd similarity to John O’Hara’s snapshots of urban trouble. They look quickly into domestic unhappiness, they record urban speech precisely, they are built with sharp edges, they end with a drop into defeat. A Fuchs character talks about an “unfortunate friendship”:
She made a friendship with the wrong type. Love. You know. The trouble with some people is they don’t keep in mind this is a country with a hundred and twenty million population. That feller, no matter what he had, he wasn’t the only pebble on the beach.
The voice here is less syncopated, less jazzy than the one O’Hara adopts in his New York sketches, but if you look at, say, O’Hara’s “Coffee Pot,” you’ll notice some points of similarity—after all, Brooklyn is not so far from Manhattan. Nor would it be a shameful mistake to identify the passage as coming from an early Bellow novel, since by now we have strongly established conventions in the writing of dialogue about immigrant Jews. But Fuchs is more subdued and passive, more subject to the claims of verisimilitude, while Bellow feels freer to transform, act up, stylize, impose. Being a few years younger, Bellow found it easier, perhaps, to break loose from the bonds of the Depression years.
Still, there’s a strong pleasure to be had in noticing how Fuchs, in such early stories as “Okay, Mr. Pappendass, Okay,” “The Apathetic Bookie Joint,” “A Clean, Quiet House,” avoids those vices of intellectual vanity that run through “Jewish American” fiction. Fuchs has no need to impose his will upon the characters he creates; there is no “merging” or enlargement in the relation between creator and created; his characters claim only a modest portion of the social space. But it’s at least possible that the time will come when his scrupulous realism will again seem fresh to readers taught to look down upon the ordinary.
Of the Hollywood stories, at least the two I’ve mentioned are remarkable. The young drifters of Williamsburg now appear in sagging middle age, hearts eaten away by success and memory, clinging to the slopes of Hollywood to avoid falling into bankruptcy yet dreaming that, with a yank here, a twist there, they’ll again make a cool million.
A lunatic desperation pervades these lives: Hollywood as it sinks right back to the garment center or the diamond district, luftmenschen with swimming pools. In “The Golden West” a smart Jewish producer—smart with an earned self-contempt—seems to be dragging a whole crew of dependents down with him: there’s not enough money to finish a movie, his marriage is falling apart, he talks brilliant nonsense just to keep the minutes passing—and one ends up with the feeling, this really is hell.
Fuchs wants it to be seen a little more gently, since by now it’s part of his life too, and he doesn’t propose just to pass his characters by as low company:
They were energetic, on the rise, smiling and generous, seeking…a true excitement for themselves. So there was a bona fide quality behind the impersonations they put up…. With the people in Brooklyn, in the Brownsville section where he grew up and where, until not very long ago, he had lived, there wasn’t much to know. When he was young, he sometimes secretly prided himself that he could tell almost on sight how it was with any one of them…. They were limited, held down, moving in swarms over the pavements, on their way to and from their jobs, to and from the subways. He knew what they would give to be here, how they yearned for the spaciousness, the ease of the life.
But as the Hollywood stories move along, an irresistible honesty subdues Fuchs’s more benevolent intentions. He speaks of “a depression, a recognition of the human flaw, the basic mediocrity, that the high hopes and excitements of youth were bound in time to fail and fall away.” Finally, the tension between what Fuchs must see and would occasionally prefer to see doesn’t seriously mar these stories; it only makes us believe all the more in his considerateness, his fairness as a writer.
I think of him as a “true” writer in the dictionary sense of “reflecting sincerely one’s feelings.” His prose rarely makes any claims on its own behalf. All is at the service of a moment rendered, a bit of fading history. To be “true” to one’s own feelings means, in part, to accept the terms of what has been given to one. Fuchs’s work shows how much can be made of that acceptance, but also what the price may be.