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Seize the Pen: In his essays on the writing life, Michael Greenberg emerges as figure out of Bellow (Adam Kirsch, September 22, 2009, Tablet)
[G]reenberg is engaged with the very subjects that made the first generation of American Jewish writers so elementally vigorous. That is why this slender book makes such a strong impression: it is as though Bellow or Alfred Kazin were transported to post-millennial New York, bringing their toughness and romanticism to bear on our softer and more familiar world. Greenberg himself hints at this quality of his writing in a typically self-deprecatory piece about his early struggles to publish a novel. In the early 1980s, Greenberg writes, he sent his manuscript to the influential editor Ted Solotaroff, who returned it with a note: “This manuscript represents everything I hate in fiction.” Greenberg was devastated, of course; but years later, when he read Solotaroff’s memoir Truth Comes in Blows, he realized that his novel must have struck all too close to home. “With its complicated, immigrant-minded fathers and their sons,” Greenberg now sees, “my novel must have seemed old hat to him, a story of Jewish marginality that, in America at least, was passé.”

In a certain sense, the style of Jewish marginality that Greenberg writes about Beg, Borrow, Steal does seem passé, or at least to belong to the past, if only for socioeconomic reasons. We are accustomed to reading about Jewish peddlers on the Lower East Side in the 1890s, and their struggling intellectual sons in the 1930s. Follow that lineage down to the present, and the great-grandson who becomes a writer is likely to have an MFA from Iowa and a tenured teaching job; if he writes about Jewishness, it will be in a nostalgic, quasi-magical-realist style.

In Beg, Borrow, Steal, however, the familiar timeline of assimilation and upward mobility has been discarded. Instead of his grandfather, we find Greenberg himself working as a peddler (the time appears to be the early 1970s), selling knockoff cosmetics on Fordham Road in the Bronx. Greenberg befriends a Chilean food-vendor named Lucho, who teaches him the tricks of the trade—above all, which security guard to bribe to avoid being rousted. But this gesture of friendship, like most such gestures in Greenberg’s world, turns out to have been a con. The day before Easter, when Greenberg has done great business and is carrying a lot of cash, Lucho doesn’t show up to work; instead, three teenagers come and rob him, presumably on his friend’s instructions.

The moral is one Bellow would have approved: the life of the mind is okay for idealists, but real life is dog-eat-dog.
If you were putting together a short list of our best regular essayists, we'd at least include the following: Andrew Ferguson, Joseph Epstein, Peter Augustine Lawler, PJ O'Rourke, and Mark Steyn. These are the guys who you don't just read every week--or seemingly every day in Mr. Steyn's case--but whose essay collections you keep on the bedside table so you can dip into them over and over again.

So, I have to confess to some considerable chagrin when the publicist for Mr. Greenberg's column collection sent us a set of materials suggesting that he is one of the great essayists in America. I'd honestly never heard of him. The Google search quickly rendered the reason why: he splits the Freelance column in the Times Literary Supplement, appearing every other issue. Not exactly the most widely read pages around--a problem that kept Mr. Epstein out of the limelight for too long, when he write primarily for The American Scholar.

But I read a few of the pieces he has online and the reviews for his memoir about his daughter's schizophrenia--Hurry Down, Sunshine--are uniformly glowing, so we asked for a copy of this book. Taken in short doses, the essays do not disappoint.

Mr. Greenberg is a terrific writer and he's especially good at packing a punch into the final lines of each essay (a la Mr. Ferguson). Where the other guys listed are mostly political writers though, Mr. Epstein's columns, at least those collected here, probe his own personal life and those of the people around him. His honesty about himself, and about them, is downright discomfiting. Indeed, the title piece is about his high school friend and former landlord, Eric, who has been working on a novel for years and showing him updated versions which Mr. Greenberg commented on favorably mostly to avoid having his rent raised. The author included Eric in the recent memoir and revealed not just that he was lying in his assessment of the novel but that he personally never thought it would be finished. Since his own book was published. Mr. Greenberg had been avoiding his old "friend," realizing what he'd done, but a mutual friend tells him that Eric feels like he has been "stabbed." The closing lines of the essay read:
Eric had once commented on how closely I listened to him. Enough to steal a piece of his soul.
That's an honest enough self-assessment, but it is the author's apparent habit to latch onto characters he meets in real-life in order to make them grist for his essays, which makes this promo piece from YouTube seem appalling: Are they all really just circus acts and freaks and he the ringmaster? That is how he treats them all too often. He comes across as a kind of Joseph Mitchell but without much empathy.

And that leads into the other curious aspect of the book. There's a revealing scene in William Styron's Sophie's Choice, where Nathan is talking to Stingo and says:
[H]istorically and ethnically, Jews will be coming into their own in a cultural way in this postwar wave. It's in the cards, that's all. There's one novel already that's set the pace. ... it's the work of a young writer of absolutely unquestionable brilliance."

"What's the name of it?" I asked. I think my voice had a sulky note when I added, "And who's the brilliant writer?"

"It's called Dangling Man," he replied, "and it's by Saul Bellow."
Just as Mr. Styron's book and his doppleganger, Stingo, seemed to be trying to borrow Jewishness because it was the in thing, so too does Mr. Greenberg, as Adam Kirsch says, seem stuck in the 1950s, trying to imitate Saul Bellow, or trying to recreate him in the here and now.

Writing in Harper's, Vivian Gornick offered a pretty devastating critique of Bellow and Roth:
As the social reality of Jewish outsiderness waned, the rage at the heart of Jewish-American writing began to lose its natural source of energy. This turn of events delivered an unexpected piece of information about the entire enterprise. The work was inextricably bound up not so much with being kept out as with the sickness of feeling kept out. [...]

In the nineteenth century, Jewish mockery was described by a critic of Yiddish literature as “the sick despair of [those for whom life is] a permanent witticism.” It could never get beyond the limited force of its own excoriating humor. That force held everyone and everything up to superior ridicule, but it could not penetrate its own self-deceptions; hence, it could not deepen psychologically. If you accept this observation as a given—and I do—you cannot help wondering how much of Ur-Bellow and Roth will prove to have transcended its moment of cultural glory. Somehow it’s hard to imagine yesterday’s savaging brilliance transforming into tomorrow’s wisdom.
Well, it is tomorrow now and if we can sort of accept that Bellow and Roth--who at least grew up when Jews were alienated from the prevailing culture--weren't capable of moving on, we do have to wonder why someone like Mr. Greenberg can't.

Norman Podhoretz has been fretting lately about why Jews are so overwhelmingly liberal. He has arrived at the conclusion that liberalism has actually replaced Judaism itself as their faith and that Jewishness for many is just a matter of ethnicity these days, not anything to do with religion:
[I]n virtually every instance of a clash between Jewish law and contemporary liberalism, it is the liberal creed that prevails for most American Jews. Which is to say that for them, liberalism has become more than a political outlook. It has for all practical purposes superseded Judaism and become a religion in its own right. And to the dogmas and commandments of this religion they give the kind of steadfast devotion their forefathers gave to the religion of the Hebrew Bible. For many, moving to the right is invested with much the same horror their forefathers felt about conversion to Christianity.

All this applies most fully to Jews who are Jewish only in an ethnic sense. Indeed, many such secular Jews, when asked how they would define "a good Jew," reply that it is equivalent to being a good liberal.
Obviously a politics that is unconsidered, just a "racial" birthright, is not a thing of much worth. And it sits so uneasily beside the sort of Bellowian mockery that Mr. Greenberg employs that it creates considerable psychic dissonance. Maybe liberal mockery can't help but be mean-spirited, rather than jokingly insightful?

For all the honesty about the deeds and words in his own life, Mr. Greenberg doesn't really penetrate to the motivations and attitudes that underlie them. And that leaves a huge void.


Grade: (B)


See also:

Michael Greenberg Links:

    -WIKIPEDIA: Michael Greenberg
    -BOOK SITE: Beg, Borrow, steal (Other Press)
    -EXCERPT: from Hurry Down Sunshine
    -ESSAY: Hurry Down Sunshine (Michael Greenberg , Powell's)
    -ESSAY: Freelance: My grandfather's pocket watch... (Michael Greenberg, 12/22/06, TLS)
    -ESSAY: Freelance: Remember what I'm saying... (Michael Greenberg, 4/21/06, TLS)
    -REVIEW ESSAY: American Faith, American Violence: Robert Stone's fiction explores the delusions that shape our lives. (Michael Greenberg, December 1999/January 2000, Boston Review)
    -REVIEW: of Of Love And Other Demons by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (Michael Greenberg , Boston Review)
    -REVIEW ESSAY: Inventing Irving Howe: Irving Howe's World of Our Fathers is a grand story of immigrant success, written by a member of the second generation. But is it the real story of Howe's own life? (Michael Greenberg, February/March 1995, Boston Review)
    -REVIEW: of Leaving Las Vegas by John O'Brien (Michael Greenberg, Boston Review)
    -REVIEW: of Pulp by Charles Bukowski (Michael Greenberg , Boston Review)
    -REVIEW ESSAY: A Descamisada Diva: Four decades after her death, Eva Perón remains a powerful symbol of Argentina's profound cultural and political divisions. (Michael Greenberg, Boston Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: of Can't Remember What I Forgot: The Good News from the Front Lines of Memory Research by Sue Halpern (Michael Greenberg, NY Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: of Lo’s Diary by Pia Pera and Ahab’s Wife, or the Star-Gazer by Sena Jeter Naslund (Michael Greenberg, Boston Review)
    -REVIEW: of The Time of Our Time by Norman Mailer (Michael Greenberg, TLS)
    -ARCHIVES: "michael greenberg (Boston Review)
    -ARCHIVES: Michael Greenberg (NY Review of Books)
    -AUDIO INTERVIEW: with Michael Greenberg (Here and Now for Monday, February 23, 2009)
    -INTERVIEW: Michael Greenberg Interview (A Copperfield's Exclusive, September 2008)
    -INTERVIEW: Michael Greenberg on His Remarkable Memoir Hurry Down Sunshine (Village Voice, 9/25/08
    -INTERVIEW: Cracked: Michael Greenberg (Boris Kachka, Sep 7, 2008, New York)
    -AUDIO INTERVIEW: Michael Greenberg (MPR, September 2008)
    -INTERVIEW: Paperback Writer: The Rumpus Interview With Michael Greenberg (Sean Carman, September 1st, 2009)
    -REVIEW: of Beg, Borrow, Steal: A Writer’s Life by Michael Greenberg (Adam Kirsch, Tablet)
    -REVIEW: of Beg, Borrow Steal (Edmund White, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Beg, Borrow, Steal (Diane Leach, January Magazine)
    -REVIEW: of Beg Borrow, Steal (Janelle Adsit, Foreword)
    -REVIEW: of Beg, Borrow, Steal (Hellen Gallagher, BlogCritics)
    -REVIEW: of Beg, Borrow, Steal (Ralph Mag)
    -REVIEW: of Beg, Borrow, Steal (Sinclair McKay,Daily Telegraph)
    -REVIEW: of Hurry Down Sunshine by Michael Greenberg (RACHEL Donadio, lNY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Hurry Down Sunshine (Oliver Sacks, NY Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: of Hurry Down Sunshine (Joyce Carol Oates, Times of London)
    -REVIEW: of Hurry Down Sunshine (MOLLY McCLOSKEY, Irish Times)
    -REVIEW: of Hurry Down Sunshine (Ian Critchley, Sunday Times of London)
    -REVIEW: of Hurry Down Sunshine (Bel Mooney, Times of London)
    -REVIEW: of Hurry Down Sunshine (Blake Morrison, Guardian)
    -REVIEW: of Hurry Down Sunshine (Rhian Ellis, identitytheory)
    -REVIEW: of Hurry Down Sunshine (Traci J. Macnamara, for Contemporary Lit)
    -REVIEW: of Hurry Down Sunshine (Lisa Solod Warren, BlogCritics)
    -REVIEW: of Hurry Down Sunshine (Kate Kellaway, Observer)
    -REVIEW: of Hurry Down Sunshine (Sarah Rachel Egelman, Bookreporter)
    -REVIEW: of Hurry Down Sunshine (Deirdre Donahue, USA TODAY)
    -REVIEW: of Hurry Down Sunshine (Jacob Appel, RainTaxi)
    -REVIEW: of Hurry Down Sunshine ( Barbara Lloyd McMichael, The Seattle Times)
    -REVIEW: of Hurry Down Sunshine (Melissa Holbrook Pierson, Barnes & Noble)
    -REVIEW: of Hurry Down Sunshine (Theresa Tighe, St. Louis POST-DISPATCH)
    -REVIEW: of Hurry Down Sunshine (KRISTIN TILLOTSON, Star Tribune )
    -REVIEW: of Hurry Down Sunshine (Booklist)
    -REVIEW: of Hurry Down Sunshine (MELANIE THERNSTROM, Wall Street Journal)
    -REVIEW: of Hurry Down Sunshine (Sydney Morning Herald)
    -REVIEW: of Hurry Down Sunshine (Publishers Weekly)
    -REVIEW: of Hurry Down Sunshine (Gloria Goldreich, Hadassah)
    -REVIEW: of Hurry Down Sunshine (Alison Flood, Daily Telegraph)
    -REVIEW: of Hurry Down Sunshine (Lucie Young, Daily Telegraph)
    -REVIEW: of Hurry Down Sunshine (Brisbane Times)

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