Genius Without Tears

It seems appropriate, if highly ironic, that a year celebrating George Gershwin—a new biography, concerts, recordings—has by now dovetailed into a year of tributes to Irving Berlin. Much of the irony, of course, lies in the lopsided juxtaposition of these “contemporaries,” born only ten years apart. While 1987 marked the …

The Wandering Jew

Philip Roth dedicates his fourth full-length novel about Nathan Zuckerman “To my father at eighty-five,” and those who have been keeping up with Roth’s recent fiction will probably suspect that—on this very first page of text—something more than a heartwarming personal note is being sounded. After all, the center-piece of …

Foundling Fiction

Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine was a commanding first book of fiction, but not necessarily the announcement of a major novelist’s arrival. Winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction in 1984, the book consists of fourteen short stories about life on and around a North Dakota reservation in …

Puffs

By the standards of almost any other writer, G. Cabrera Infante’s new history of “the five-century-old relationship between the European gentleman and his smoke”—cigarettes, pipes, but above all cigars—is freewheeling, ardently frolicsome. Unfettered by chapter divisions or other organizational fiddle-faddle, the Cuban expatriate writer (himself a beatifically complacent cigar smoker) …

Having It All

As perhaps befits a literary high priestess of the Baby Boomers’ generation, Ann Beattie is a writer who insists on Having It All—at least in the tricky matter of an author’s relationship with her characters. In both her stories and her novels, Beattie remains aloof from her fumbling spouses and …

Small Expectations

With a white horse serenely flying through an evening-blue, star-flecked sky, far above a Manhattan skyline, the book jacket for Mark Helprin’s Winter’s Tale is certainly one of the prettiest of the year. The prose inside is pretty too. Twinkling images assembled from a palette heavy on blue and “swirling …

Growing Pains

Young guy—at loose ends, just out of college (or high school)—bops around aimlessly. Fights with his folks, tries to recapture that campus (or adolescent) glow, has a messy love affair. Makes a self-discovery or two. Eventually pulls himself together. Lots of laughs, lots of sex, lots of Angst. That, more …

Variety Shows

This hasn’t been a good year, by any reckoning, for the epic, fantastical strains—absurdism, fable, surrealism—in American fiction. The late John Gardner’s Mickelsson’s Ghosts, John Barth’s Sabbatical, Bernard Malamud’s God’s Grace, Kurt Vonnegut’s Deadeye Dick: violently dissimilar in other respects, they all suggest the fatigue (or uneasiness) that dogs most …

Jew d’Esprit

The return of Henry Bech was, one might think, something less than inevitable. After all, when, “with his thinning curly hair and melancholy Jewish nose,” Bech first surfaced in a short story in the mid-1960s, the American Jewish Novel was approaching its heyday as a generic cultural commodity. In 1965 …

Balancing Act

In a Manhattan bookstore the other day, a knowing browser in suede picked up a copy of Gilbert Sorrentino’s latest novel, turned it about in gingerly appraisal, and said to a friend: “I’ve heard that…this new book of his…, well, supposedly it…tells a story.” The tone of surprise was understandable.