Norman Mailer could throw a punch, but as a writer he bobbed and weaved around his Jewishness.
Special To The Jewish Week
One virtue of the novel is that fictional characters often outlive the novelist who created them. Actually, that’s one of the reasons why some people give up their day jobs to tell stories instead. Aside from having children, fiction writing is one of the best ways to leave evidence of oneself. And, in some cases — think Atticus Finch, Ebenezer Scrooge, and Tom Sawyer — it can even lead to immortality.
Humor is an enigma. Philosophers and physicians and psychologists, historians and linguists have for centuries pondered why we laugh. Aristotle and Freud, Kant and Bergson have offered explanations of humor. But at bottom, there ain’t nothing like a good joke.
Several years ago, when Philip Roth's novel "Portnoy's Complaint" turned 25, I spent a few days in the New York Public Library researching the Jewish community's reaction to the book. I discovered that the response to it (as well as to the stories in "Goodbye, Columbus," which appeared a few years earlier) was a combination of rage and puzzlement. The level of shock and hurt expressed by community leaders was less surprising to me, though, than the unanimity of response.
It's unusual for three first-rate contemporary Jewish writers (Philip Roth, Cynthia Ozick, and David Grossman) to pay homage in their fiction to a somewhat obscure literary figure. But in Ozick's novella "The Messiah of Stockholm," Grossman's novel "See Under: Love," and Roth's story "The Prague Orgy," the gossamer figure of Bruno Schulz, the extraordinary Polish Jewish writer killed by the Nazis, predominates.
The New York Times Book Review's recent survey of the "the single best work of American fiction published in the last 25 years" produced a number of interesting findings. The first was that, despite Toni Morrison's "Beloved" winning the prize, there were hardly any books by women among the multiple vote-getters. The second was that Philip Roth had far more of his books on the short list than anyone else, and if the Times had instead asked the question "Who is the best American writer of the last 25 years?" he would have won hands down.
It sounds strange now, in the post-Soon-Yi era, but Woody Allen's classic films of the 1970s and especially the 1980s made him one of American cinema's most important moral voices. Behind the neurotic shtick and the clumsy narcissism, Allen in films such as "Zelig," "Broadway Danny Rose" and "Crimes and Misdemeanors" created comic-tragic dramas highlighting the need for personal responsibility, the value of intense self-reflections, and the danger of veering from a moral compass, however personally defined.
Years ago, I wrote a short story called "The Institute for Lenny Bruce Studies." The idea was that a wealthy Jewish donor created a think-tank on a sleepy New England campus, dedicated to jump-starting the "secular Jewish prophethood" that inspired him as a young radical. Institute Fellows would come from the fields of academics, politics, religion and stand-up comedy, and the two-year curriculum would include the poetry of Allen Ginsberg, the songs of Bob Dylan and, of course, the routines of Lenny Bruce.