The Apathetic Bookie Joint
by Daniel Fuchs
Methuen, 288 pp., $10.00
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 …