There is no better introduction to Paul Rudnick’s book of essays, I Shudder, than its subtitle: And Other Reactions to Life, Death, and New Jersey. And there is nowhere that this description is more apt than the first essay: in which Rudnick tells his life story — a common story, really, of being a writer and moving to the Big City and coming out as a gay man — through a series of visits, by his mother and her two sisters, of his West Village apartments.
Rudnick has a gift for writing about any situation — whether facing off against a movie producer high on cocaine or being a Jew doing fieldwork at a convent for a film script (Sister Act) or emigrating from New Jersey to Manhattan — with good humor and total nonchalance. More remarkably, he shares that sort of easy wisdom with his characters. He doesn’t offer a coming-out story so much as an understanding, sometimes silent and sometimes not, and even the darker sides of his new New York neighborhood are treated with a gentle glibness by his aunts: “‘S and M,’ said Lil, nodding her head. ‘That’s when people like to have other people beat them up, right? Like on dates?’”
Aunt Lil, the don of the Rudnick aunt mafia, reappears again and again in these stories. When Rudnick finally achieves the Jewish dream of dating a doctor, his Aunt Lil is the judge and jury to whom he must present his new acquisition. The comic tension is insurmountable, of course — not so much because of the doctor’s gender, male, so much as his name, John — and the ensuing conclusions about his religion.
And then there are the essays that don’t dwell on the Jew stuff at all. Reading about the making of the Addams Family film is a bit of gleeful joy that arouses both my sycophantic goth side and my faux-pas-friendly flamboyant side. Reading Bette Midler stories during the writing of Sister Act (she was contracted to star in the film, until the last moment) is pure joy. His series of grumpy-old-man meditations — well, meditations, fashion tips, and plots to assassinate Rachel Ray — are a weird series of interstitial fantasies that make the rest of his essays that much more vividly real.
Most compelling of all, however, is “Good Enough to Eat,” which, though it’s entirely devoid of gastrointestinal jokes, is no less a quintessentially Jewish musing on food than anything you’re likely to find on Seinfeld or the humor bank:
An unlikely number of people, and particularly my family, have always been obsessed with my diet. This is because, since I was born, I have never had the slightest interest in eating any sort of meat, fish, poultry, or vegetable. I wasn’t the sad-eyed victim of some childhood trauma; I was never frightened by a malevolent tube steak or a rampaging halibut. A greasy-haired stranger never lured me into his van and forced me to stroke an ear of corn while he took photos. I don’t have what daytime talk shows and the Healthy Living sections of newspapers call food issues. What I have is a sweet tooth which has spread to all of my other organs. I probably have a sweet appendix.
I’ve always thought that David Sedaris was Jewish, even when I’ve been corrected by people much more in the know than I. Paul Rudnick has done more than enough to convince me — not that Sedaris is Jewish, but that Rudnick is actually David Sedaris. It’s good, and so is he.