Some of the literary works I deal with in Unclean Lips are relatively well-known—Henry Roth’s Call It Sleep (1935) and Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint (1969), for example, are two of the most widely read novels by and about American Jews. But some of them even most scholars haven’t heard of.
Here’s a short recommended reading and listening list, in case you’re eager to learn more about the literary encounters of American Jews with taboo language and explicit discussions of sex.
1. Adele Wiseman’s Crackpot (1974), an extraordinary novel about an obese Jewish prostitute in Winnipeg, Manitoba. It’s brutally, unsparingly frank, and radically feminist, too—and it earns a mention in Ruth Wisse’s The Modern Jewish Canon.
2. Theodore Dreiser’s The Hand of the Potter (1918), a four-act play by one of the most prominent (non-Jewish) American authors of the early 20th century, which tells the tale of a young Jewish man who can’t resist raping and murdering little girls. (It’s actually not anti-Semitic.)
3. Some people remember Robert Rimmer’s novel The Harrad Experiment (1966), which was marketed as “the sex manifesto of the free love generation” and sold millions of copies. But people don’t tend to remember how much of the novel focuses on a Jewish character, Harry Schacht, and his traditional Jewish family. (Turns out his great-grandmother posed for nude photographs.)
4. The short stories by the American Yiddish playwright David Pinski that were translated into English under the title of Temptations in 1919 were censored thanks to the efforts of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice. But you can read the book online now, including Pinski’s story about the time that Rabbi Akiva had to resist a couple of prostitutes sent to seduce him.
5. Lenny Bruce wasn’t the only Jewish comedian who got busted on obscenity charges; in the same years, Belle Barth was telling filthy stories on stage, with some punchlines in English, some in Yiddish. You can hear her circa 1960 album If I Embarrass You, Tell Your Friends online, and don’t worry if you don’t speak Yiddish: “There’s only two words you need to know in the Yiddishe language,” she tells her audience, “and that’s gelt and shmuk: ’cause if a man has no gelt, he is.”
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When it comes to 20th-century Jewish authors, it’s Bellow, Roth, and Salinger who generally grab headlines. But their immediate predecessors—Delmore Schwartz and Nathanael West—worked in an era that will always captivate me. The term “bygone time” gets tossed around a lot, but to read Schwartz and West is to truly step into a different America—the America of the 1930s—than the one that Bellow, Roth, and Salinger chronicled.
For one thing, World War II had not happened. For another, the television had not yet taken over as a standard domestic appliance. But the movies and radio were in full swing, forever altering the way we consume words, images, advertisements, and stories. Schwartz and West had to compete with these newfangled media. In one of my favorite passages from Miss Lonelyhearts, West, through the prism of that novel’s narrator, laments how the noun dreams has lost its aura in this new era:
“Although dreams were once powerful, they have been made puerile by the movies, radio and newspapers. Among many betrayals, this one is the worst” (39).
Almost as bad, for West’s narrator, is the way consumerism and vanity have encroached upon dreams as a once-sacred trope:
“Guitars, bright shawls, exotic foods, outlandish costumes—all these things were part of the business of dreams. He had learned not to laugh at the advertisements offering to teach writing, cartooning, engineering, to add inches to the biceps and to develop the bust” (22).
There’s no way to prove that Schwartz had these passages in mind when he wrote his legendary story, “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities,” two years later. But if the title is merely an unwitting homage to Lonelyhearts, the thematic overlaps are too powerful to ignore. To wit: Schwartz’s entire story takes place not only in a movie theater, but also in a theater that is the setting of a dream the narrator is having.
The movie depicts the clumsy courtship of the narrator’s parents. The theatergoers are all along for the romantic ride, with the exception of the narrator, who disturbs the other patrons with his protestations: “Don’t do it. It’s not too late to change your minds,” he shouts at the screen, after his father proposes to his mother. Naturally, the theatergoers wish he would just shut up and let them enjoy the film. They’ve paid good money to see it (thirty-five cents, in 1935).
In many ways, Schwartz and West set the stage for The Catcher In The Rye (1951), in which Holden Caulfield spends many a paragraph ridiculing the implausible idealism of mainstream American films. All of that—the march against phoniness—is generally credited to Salinger, and for good reason: His contrarian novel cracked the mainstream, giving vent to hypocrisies that most readers felt but never expressed. But let us remember that when it comes to the movies—and their corruption of dreams—West and Schwartz were there first.
The book’s style, setting, and protagonist invite the question: It’s a first-person coming-of-age debut. It takes place largely in New York and Boston, where I’ve spent most of my life. And the main character—the Zinsky of the title—is my age.
But my honest answer is this: “The life I’ve lived is different from the tale I spin about a fictional character named Zinsky. But I’ve used plenty of ammunition from my life to create Zinsky and his story.”
The thing is—there’s heavy ammunition, and there’s light ammunition.
In the category of heavy ammo, I’d list the following:
- My parents separated when I was six. Same thing happens to Zinsky.
- My mother was an English teacher. That, too, is the profession of Zinsky’s mother.
- I’m a zealot of all things related to literature and football. So is Zinsky.
And yet, I never quite feel like the heavy ammo provides the entire picture. The book contains dozens of minor elements—in the form of small descriptions, single scenes, and turns of phrase—that are also autobiographical. This is what I call “light ammo.”
For example: There’s a wedding scene in Chapter 21, in which two characters—bored by the ceremonies—play a game of prayerbook baseball. Here’s how it works: Zinsky whispers a page number to Jimmy Calipari, the character sitting next to him. Jimmy attempts to open his prayerbook to exactly that page. If he succeeds, he’s hit a home run. If he gets within five pages, it’s a triple. Within 10, a double. Within 15, a single. Beyond 15, it’s an out. So the game begins, with the same general rules—three outs to a half-inning—as regular baseball.
A friend taught me this game in seventh grade. We were sitting next to each other during the Bar Mitzvah ceremony of another friend. We were bored out of our skulls. And this was 1987, so you couldn’t just take out a smartphone.
So you see, prayerbook baseball’s appearance in Zinsky is an autobiographical element. It’s not the heavy stuff of location, vocation, or family; but any way you slice it, it’s material from my life that I mined to create a fictional scene.
The point is, it’s easy to think of a novel’s autobiographical elements in terms of big-picture similarities between the author’s life and the life of his or her main character.
But just as often, it’s the small stuff.
Memorial Day, 2007. I’ve drifted away from a Santa Monica beach party to gaze out at the Pacific Ocean, plus my navel, when an unfamiliar woman approaches. We chat a bit—she’s a literary agent based in New York, the sister of the hostess—and then she asks the dreaded question. “So…what are you working on these days?” I pause to consider before answering. You know when people say to cute, charismatic single women, “You’re so fabulous—I just can’t believe you’re single!” and they want to punch them in the face and then kill themselves? This was a work version of that.
You see, I’ve been living in Los Angeles for seven years, having left my native New York City to seek my fortune as a screenwriter with a soap opera credit and a fresh pile of TV spec scripts in my kit bag, but the steady ascent I’ve pictured, and that I’ve seen other people achieve, hasn’t happened. I’ve been working so damn hard for so long and I feel like I’m nowhere, other than crushed. How could that be, when I’ve done everything I’ve seen other people doing—and what my various agents have told me to do?
I mean: I got a driver’s license at age 30 in order to drive cross-country in a U-Haul piled with whatever possessions my husband and I didn’t sell when we left Brooklyn. I sat in a rented house in the Hollywood Dell with a vintage metal desk and a pristine view of a walled garden that gave me a squirrely Barton Fink feeling, and I cranked out material and rolled calls. I got a job on a show—the researcher on Law &Order: SVU in its first season—and I wrote two freelance episodes…but I wasn’t put on staff. I re-wrote a teen comedy feature for Paramount…but my broadly comic take was poorly received. I sold a TV dramedy pilot, a high school musical…but the executives involved walked away when I’d banked they’d burst into song. Eventually, motivated by the stretches of unemployment between these gigs, I developed a freelance sideline, writing copy for entertainment-based ad campaigns. And then, just weeks before the beach party at which I’m now a wallflower, a literary manager who’s read what I thought were my best scripts delivers a disturbing critique. “Your work is solid,” she says. “It’s well written and it proves you can do it. But I can’t do anything with it, because it’s generic. I would be interested in working with you, but first I’d need to see material that only you could write. Write some new stuff this summer and send it over after Labor Day.” Generic? New stuff? Sounds like me? Fecch. Continue reading