The New Jewish Anti-hero: Oversexed and Underpaid

Ruth Margalit
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From 'Frances Ha'.
Ruth Margalit

“What’s Important Is Feeling,” by Adam Wilson; Harper Perennial, 224 pages, $15 (paperback)

“One breast was bigger, about the size of a golf ball. The other was completely flat.” “They groped like babies at each other’s breasts.” “Tiny, braless breasts.” “Heavy breasts.” “‘Tits like cantaloupes.’” “Taped-down tits.” “Watched Kathleen’s breasts bob.” “Big nipples.” “Little breasts.”

Still there? Good. Because this bulbous selection from Adam Wilson’s new collection of stories, “What’s Important Is Feeling,” is as child friendly as his descriptions come. It’s also – to borrow Wilson’s term, and to sum up some of his stories – rather flat. Much like the cancer that afflicts many of the book’s characters, or the drugs, or the strange hints at incest, its explicitness isn’t meant to shock the reader. On the contrary. It’s meant to show that Wilson’s protagonists – a motley crew of mostly male, college-aged underachievers – are unfazed by life, jaded. It’s a book whose pages set out to prove its title wrong.

This sense of slacker insouciance might sound familiar to anyone who has read “Flatscreen,” Wilson’s 2012 debut novel, about a privileged, 20-something pothead who strikes up a bizarre friendship with an older, wheelchair-bound actor. In the novel, the mediating factor between Eli Schwartz, the narrator, and his blinkered reality is clear. It’s the perpetual flicker of the television in the background, that chimerical “flatscreen” through which Eli experiences life. As that novel begins, Eli tries for a “David Copperfield”-like introduction, yet finds himself coming short:

“But maybe Mom’s not the place to start, though she’s where I began (in her I took shape, grew limbs, prepared to breathe oxygen, albeit with a slight asthmatic wheeze that has not been helped by cigarettes), and where all this coming-of-age stuff inevitably buds then barely blooms, like the pale azaleas Mrs. Todd put on her porch every spring but never watered, letting the rain try to raise them up, make them stand and receive sunlight, just as the constant dull glow of the television tried with me, equally failed.”

It’s a graceful note – the very first word a negation, Eli’s whiled-away days evocatively compared to those blanched and thirsty shrubs – and Wilson proves himself a capable chronicler of that first clumsy stumble into adulthood. But most of the stories in the collection, while they draw on similar landscapes, are more crudely sketched. Instead of carefully carving out his narratives, Wilson too often splays them open. Consider the beginning of “Sluts at Heart,” about a young man reuniting with old friends:

“The country was voting Young vs. Vegas Elvis for the national stamp. The West Coast was in flames over Rodney King. George Bush had 10 points in the polls on Bill Clinton, with third-party lunatic Ross Perot loudly gaining steam. My friend Simit was dying.”

Or this, from “Things I Had,” about a teenager with a dysfunctional family:

“My grandfather was an old queen, and when he was dying he would grab me through my pants and try to make it hard. He had Alzheimer’s and called me Sam, and sometimes I let him because it wasn’t his fault and I liked the attention.”

These workshop-ready phrases may be edgy and clipped, wound tight like a rubber band, but they seem quicker to one-up each other, to proffer a snappy punch line, than to serve a story. At times one can’t help but wish that Wilson would get out of his characters’ way a little, and let them breathe. Because when he does, we are rewarded with a restrained, hilarious and surreal result, like the book’s title story, about the mishaps of a movie crew off the coast of Texas. In it, an actor from Mexico City, of “cartel superwealth,” kicks around a soccer ball between takes as he chats up the Mexican grips, smiling “a humble, punchable smile at everyone he passed.” Meanwhile, an animal wrangler by the name of Gil Broome arrives on set to judge the “authenticity” of a scene involving the beheading of a chicken. Gil is not in charge of the actual chicken, though; that’s a job for the special-effects team. Felix, the film’s hapless screenwriter, sidles up to him:

“Fuck the chickens too,” he said. “This scene wasn’t in the script anyway.”

“No chickens,” Gil said. “Got it.”

“Yes chickens,” Felix said. “Just fuck them. You see what I’m saying?”

Later, Gil is given instructions on how to prep a cat for its cameo: “It’s got to look around, smell death. Can you promise me that, Gil, can you promise me the cat will smell death?” The absurd setting and dialogue, reminiscent of Joan Didion’s “Play It as It Lays,” with its sandy terrains and Hollywood bloviators, doesn’t overextend itself. The narrator, a film school graduate, who is a member of the crew, is barely present. It’s only in the story’s last few lines that the lens suddenly shifts and zooms in on him – less an end than a delicate new beginning.

No more taboos

A few months ago, in The New Republic, Sam Lipsyte – whose literary shadow hangs over the pages of this book – cautioned fiction writers on the perils of writing a sex scene. When all sexual taboos have already been broken, so his argument went, what more is there for writers to pore over besides “the mean, dark stuff” of life? “It’s tough to pull off, especially now,” Lipsyte wrote. “Burst into the room like the new Henry Miller / Anaïs Nin / Jean Genet / Terry Southern / Norman Mailer, all keyed-up to bust some taboos, and you risk resembling some rube in a paisley gimp mask and a childo from Target.”

These are the words of experience. It therefore feels unwarranted to take Wilson to task for his stories’ sex-obsessed themes. They may in fact be commendable. But when one character is described as “kind of a dick,” another as the “wussiest,” while a third is compared to “the chicks on MTV” – all within a single story – the problem isn’t one of subject matter but of register. When life itself is sexualized to the point of triviality, then the sex, that elusive “dark stuff” of life, risks becoming trivial, too.

Many short story collections these days tend to be written with a unifying theme in mind (Molly Antopol’s “The UnAmericans,” where each story unfolds in a foreign place or concerns itself with the immigrant experience, is a recent example). This is perhaps in part the result of a publishing industry keen on the idea of branding its titles and authors. “What’s Important Is Feeling” eschews such categorization, except, perhaps, for one: Its narrators, as far as one can tell, are all Jewish. This is an interesting choice, more so since the characters’ Jewishness is offered up as a random factoid, like living in the suburbs, more a statement of fact than of identity. Wilson’s characters are no Woody Allen neurotics or Philip Roth grumblers. They are slack-jaw drifters – oversexed and underemployed. A new kind of Jewish-American antihero is offered here as a model, one who’s rather indistinguishable from his cohort of non-Jewish friends. As the narrator of “Soft Thunder” – a young busboy at a diner – explains, while comparing his family to those of others around him:

“My parents were slightly older, of a different generation of Jews – ex-hippies who’d smoked themselves silly in the sixties and now preferred a half glass of red, nothing more. They looked down on parents like Sam’s, the tacky and tastelessly rich. The work ethic – it was suggested – had been weaned out of our people. We’d grown soft in luxury, aspiring Wasps toasting Bud Lights to full assimilation, while the Chinese and Indians filled our old Harvard spots.”

It’s the Bud Light-toasting Jews that Wilson is after, those who read Zen books and forget to plug in their menorahs. Only once does Judaism figure more concretely. This happens, interestingly, in the sole story in the book with a female narrator – a university student from Boston who spends a summer in New York with her charismatic professor. It’s 2006, the year of Israel’s Second Lebanon War, and the professor, finding our protagonist reading about the killing of Lebanese civilians in the newspaper, calls their deaths “hideous.” The narrator balks. “Something about the word hideous – the same adjective she’d used to describe the apartment’s art – made me wonder if it wasn’t all theory for her, some kind of ideological chess match unrelated to actual suffering.” Finding herself occupying an ambiguous role amid her liberal surroundings, the narrator senses that her friends’ dismissal of anti-Semitism as “a thing of the past” was “its own anti-Semitism, or an excuse for it.” Much like the main character in “Soft Thunder,” she concludes that “Jews were the new Wasps: privileged, powerful, perfect targets for blame.”

If they are indeed the new Wasps, Wilson is there to capture them in what should be fascinating intersections of privilege, power and blame. Yet his characters end up doing a lot without doing much at all. They smoke, they snort, they jam, they marry, they break up, they have sex, they think about having sex. It’s a fun if slightly nauseating ride. By the end of the book, though, a realization begins to take shape: Every so often, in literature, as in life, what’s important – what’s truly worth capturing – is feeling.

Adam Wilson.Credit: Gabriel Wilson