Responsible Men Shines
by Greta Petry (November 22, 2005)
Assistant Professor of English Edward Schwarzschild has written a refreshing first novel, Responsible Men (Algonquin Books, $23.95).
The title alone is a draw, judging from the humorous comments made by visitors to my office who spotted the book on a shelf over the summer. "Responsible Men? Isn't that an oxymoron?" asked one male colleague, tongue in cheek.
The plot is as intriguing as the title. "Max Wolinsky is 41 and ethically challenged," notes the publisher's blurb on the book jacket. "He comes from a family of mostly upstanding salesmen. What makes him cross over the line from responsible man to con man is at the heart of this poignant and gritty novel."
In the postmodern world, we sometimes hear of the death of the traditional plot. Life is far more complex than that, we're told; we must look for the shadows and hidden meanings, and uncover the nuances. The story isn't interesting unless it has layers and layers of complications. Furthermore, it's considered passé to talk about what's right and what's wrong, because morality differs for different people.
Responsible Men blasts these notions out of the water. Max is morally challenged and yet he is familiar with the Torah reading his son Nathan will interpret at his bar mitzvah. Max studied the same reading about the biblical Caleb at his own bar mitzvah 30 years before. Responsible Men is firmly grounded in the morals of a Jewish family.
If Max is the errant son, his father Caleb is the true Responsible Man, since he is the day-to-day caretaker of his brother Abe, who suffered a stroke. We learn that Caleb pushed methodically along through his life, consistently doing the right thing. Caleb is without joy, weary from doing right, frustrated in trying to get Abe to take a few steps outside the house.
With its tug of war between good and bad, Responsible Men reminded me somewhat of John Steinbeck's East of Eden. Steinbeck's Adam Trask, like Caleb, is almost too responsible for his own good.
The characters of Max, Caleb, and Abe are so carefully developed in Responsible Men, it's almost like living in the same house with them. They grate on each other's nerves, become alternately hopeful about and disappointed in each other, and forgive one another day after day. They seem like real people.
Schwarzschild has written that while growing up, he was heavily influenced by Death of a Salesman. His father was a salesman who would neither read nor watch the Arthur Miller play. "Miller gave me the dream of becoming a writer, and he showed me how to begin to understand my father," Schwarzschild writes. In fact, Responsible Men is Death of a Salesman with hope.
Is Responsible Men written for men only? I don't think so.
While we don't learn that much about Max's girlfriend Estelle and her mother Janet, as characters they are fairly realistically drawn and offer the redemption Max's otherwise male world cannot. Sandy, Max's ex-wife, lacks depth, but her character is used to underscore Max's failures, and as such is important to the plot.
Responsible Men has received rave reviews, deservedly so. Schwarzschild has a joint appointment in the Department of English and the New York State Writers Institute. He may look like a kid on the book jacket, but he writes with wisdom and compassion.
"I've been very pleasantly surprised by the reaction to the book
so far," said Schwarzschild. It's been a real pleasure to be out
on book tour these last few months. I've been particularly surprised and
honored to be treated like a hometown writer here at the University and in town.
As the book suggests, I'm a Philadelphia boy, but I've been living
and working in Albany for four years now and I wrote most of the book here and,
these days, this place feels like home to me."