The Best Overlooked American Jewish Novelist

Stephen Dixon is, in my opinion, the best and most overlooked American Jewish fiction writer in the country. If I left out “Jewish,” he would still be the best. He has just published his 32nd book, a novel entitled His Wife Leaves Him, which is partly based on the death of his own beloved wife. Like Philip Roth,Cynthia Ozick, Thomas Beller, Jennifer Belle, Jonathan Lethem,Bruce Jay Friedman, and such predecessors as Saul Bellow,Henry RothIsaac Bashevis Singer, Daniel Fuchs, Grace PaleyTillie Olsen, and Wallace Markfield, Dixon’s Jewishness is not an orthodox or institutional one, but simply a fact that informs and haunts much of his work. It is hard to understand Dixon’s obscurity; he’s a two-time National Book Award finalist and has won four O. Henry Awards, a Guggenheim Fellowship for fiction, and an American Academy of Arts and Letters Literature Award. In 1994 the Boston Globe wrote that “It will take writers twenty years to catch up with what Stephen Dixon is doing.”

His output is mind-boggling: in addition to his novels, he has published hundreds of stories and is completing a new book, Late Stories, with hundreds more. Nevertheless, Dixon is not about quantity or longevity. Dixon is about freshness and quality. Among his gifts—which include narrative inventiveness without a trace of pretension or convolution, a hilarious sense of humor, and a memory that seems to evoke every single thing that has ever happened to him—he writes the most moving and lasting love stories I have ever read. Among them are his immortal story Sleepin which the narrator imagines, with infinite pain and loss, the death of his wife.

And now we have in His Wife Leaves Him, perhaps the most complete love story ever written in the history of American letters. And it too is a story told in the face of death. Martin’s wife, still young, is diagnosed with a degenerative disease that, over the years, is unrelentingly cruel and ultimately fatal. I am certain that American literature has never created a husband who gives of himself so deeply, so fully, taking care of his wife even to the point of physical exhaustion. And it is a story told without false sentimentality or embellishment, which renders it all the more touching and believable.

Posted on December 18, 2013

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