by Brian Glanville.
Farrar, Strauss & Cudahy. 441 pp. $5.50.
by Judah Stampfer.
Macmillan. 215 pp. $3.50.
These novels are lively and readable, though neither the British Diamond nor the American Sol Myers is unusual in tone or theme. Diamond is straightforward social realism with psychological overtones; Myers is a member of the Augie March family of vigor and wit. To an American, Diamond may seem like rather old-fashioned, light-weight stuff. The boisterous attack on middle-class Jewish provinciality is still fun; the book would televise well, TV writing being the prime medium of familiarity, its pleasure that of anticipating and judging clichés. But, unless we are TV agents, we do not read novels for their possibilities as a Play of the Week. And reading Diamond, the here-we-go-again-feeling is overpowering: the self-centered wife; the castrated, uncommunicating husband and father; the preferred elder son—sensitive and alienated; the neglected, ugly duckling daughter, who ends up by marrying a you know what. . . . Throw in a pinch of anti-Semitism—British boarding-school style—for flavor, bake forty minutes, and the cake is bound to rise.
Luckily, Brian Glanville does not take himself or his indignation too seriously. The morality play does not interfere with the real action of Diamond—the sporting life. Glanville seems to have a perfect ear for Anglo-Jewish speech, and each of his characters—good, bad, or indifferent—speaks with a human voice. If the main characters are tediously programmatic, those with the supporting roles have enough energy to keep you reading. You don’t much care what happens to Dr. Jack Diamond, sunk in his own mushy, pathetic idealization of his dreary wife. But his gallivanting cousin Mickey—independent, immoral, but incorruptibly male (even to facing the comeuppance of middle age)—displays a nice bit of spirit to set against Dolly Diamond’s conventional female death-urge.
Mickey is the sporting man par excellence. Football, the horses—sport is what matters in Diamond, for it is really a book about prolonged adolescence. None of the characters ever grows up after twenty. They all remain at home with their families, abroad with their gang. The hot, close atmosphere of Dolly’s family still breathes on her neck, while she, in turn, has a suffocating effect on her husband and children. For the men, the thin, sour joys of fraternity linger on. Incessantly reminiscing about the good old days, they observe the active virile life from their seats in the bleachers, yelling, elbowing, pushing, stepping on toes, and having their toes stepped on. The book is full of their hypersensitive remarks about anti-Semitic slights, real or otherwise, that provoke a sudden fight or shove.
What keeps Diamond and his cronies from growing up, from leaving the sidelines and entering English society? If I may sociologize from this side of the ocean, it is the lag of one generation. Certainly, the figures in Diamond stand where we stood twenty years ago. I know, the English Jews have been there much longer than we have been here. But they have stayed on the outside, and seem to be breaking in only now.
Judah Stampfer’s Sol Myers proves my point. Like Glanville, Stampfer is a lively writer, a pleasure to read. But where Glanville has reached the halfway house of slickness, Stampfer maintains a rough-hewn, native style. He is a poet while Glanville is still only a journalist. Where Glanville is slack and accommodating, Stampfer keeps his line taut and free. At the same time, Stampfer is confident enough to shun the lures of fancy writing. The writing is lumpy—an apt style for an anti-homogeneity book.
Stampfer writes of the outright mavericks of Jewish society, not the nagged conformists. Yet his two main characters, on whom he focuses during their crazy year at an art school in New York, seem deeper embedded in their respective Faustian and Mephistophelean characters than Glanville’s common garden variety of middle-class Jews. Sam Cohen, clumsy, aberrant, outsized, saint-to-be is less strange, because less categorized, than Glanville’s untamed shrew. Sol Myers, the I-narrator, is less successful. Myers’ observing eye is too close to the author’s, leading to some confusion of perspectives. But the book moves gracefully, for Stampfer has a grand sense of anecdote. Particularly memorable are the scenes in a summer children’s camp and of the Greenwich Village lesbians. You can smell these milieus.
And yet, as a whole, with all these virtues—the spirit and style as well as a storytelling gift—Sol Myers does not come through. The trouble lies in Stampfer’s random switching back and forth between a Polish Hasidic background and an American Jewish foreground to show the line which extends from the Old Country to the New, from the religious tradition to the existentialist non-tradition. The Hasidim are Hasidim all right, and Sol Myers and his friends from the street are solid enough—but they never meet in the novel, much less “confront.” I suspect Stampfer has too much integrity to impose a connection on reluctant material. He gives us the material, and then seems to suggest that we make the connection ourselves. But it doesn’t work.
Here again, we come back to the comparison with Glanville and with Anglo-Jewish society. Stampfer—like Bellow and Malamud before him—can write as though all readers are Jews under the skin. He can write from inside of both worlds without having to explain them; the people in his book are a part of life, unlike Glanville’s, who are on the outside looking in. And when you write from the inside, there is something interesting you can say, or try to say, and you don’t have to worry so much if you fail.