'San Remo' reflects novelist's childhood

By STEVE BARNES, Arts editor
First published: Sunday, September 21, 2003

Red Sox fans are a long-suffering lot, despairingly familiar with Septembers of hope and inevitable heartbreak.

Although novelist and baseball nut Leslie Epstein has endured Sox woe during his 25 years as director of the creative writing program at Boston University -- where his office is a few blocks from Fenway Park -- this year is especially anguishing: The second-place Red Sox trail the Yankees by only a few games, and the team's general manager, the youngest GM in baseball history, is Epstein's 29-year-old son, Theo. It's the junior Epstein's first season heading the team; his father has been wrenched mightily this season, fervent fandom amplified by parental sympathy.

"It was a horrible, horrible summer. The losses have been kind of excruciating," he says. On the phone from Boston, Epstein is calling to chat about his visit this week to the New York State Writers Institute; his latest novel, "San Remo Drive"; his former student and fellow novelist and BU faculty member Ha Jin, who will appear at the Writers Institute with him; and -- inevitably -- baseball. The only two prohibitions on when Epstein was available for an interview were during a monthly poker game and whenever the Sox were playing.

Novel from memory

"San Remo Drive," subtitled "a novel from memory," mostly consists of a fictionalized account of Epstein's childhood in the Hollywood of the 1940s and '50s. His father, Philip Epstein, and uncle Julius Epstein were the Academy Award-winning screenwriters of "Casablanca," and also wrote other classics of the era, including "Arsenic and Old Lace" and "The Man Who Came to Dinner."

Young Leslie grew up in a house on San Remo Drive, a "Southern-colonial affair" purchased from Mary Astor. The neighbors included Gregory Peck -- always a good bet for Halloween treats -- and director Billy Wilder visited for a private screening of "Sunset Boulevard."

The family's fortunes later declined: Philip Epstein, named by his boss, Jack Warner, as a suspected Communist, testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1952. Philip Epstein died in a car crash later that year; after Epstein's bereaved mother married a Frenchman who drained her bank accounts, the family had to sell the San Remo Drive home.

All of that's in the book, though the family's name has been changed to Jacobi, and Epstein's narrator and stand-in is named Richard. The second half of the book, in which the adult Richard, a painter, buys back the San Remo Drive house for his wife and adopted sons, is entirely fictional. But the four interrelated episodes of the first half closely parallel history, the author says.

"It's almost entirely as I remember it," he says. "That doesn't mean it's exactly as it happened. It's the best evocation of what I remember."

Unrelated characters

Epstein, now 65, says that while it took him decades to write about his childhood, he's been transforming the facts of his youth into fiction for his entire career, sublimating memories and feelings into seemingly unrelated characters and plots. "I've been writing my story all along, even if I was disguising it from myself," he says. His suffering became the suffering of the Jews in his novel "King of the Jews," he says, citing but a single of many examples in his previous fiction.

"One is always, at least in my case, and perhaps in a subterranean way, expressing one's childhood -- running away from it and inching one's way back," he says.

After seven nonautobiographical novels, he was finally ready to write about his own life.

"I knew I could look at my childhood experience and come to a kind of perspective and understanding -- come to a kind of peace," he says. Quoting Wordsworth, he adds, "Art is emotion recollected through tranquility."


One of the blurbs on the "San Remo Drive" jacket is from Ha Jin, who came to this country from China in 1985, earned a Ph.D. in literature from Brandeis University and, as Epstein's student, an MFA in creative writing at BU. He went on to win the National Book Award for the novel "Waiting." Epstein recently enticed him to return BU to teach after a stint at Emory University in Atlanta.

"I'd been trying to get him back to BU ever since he left, and now he has returned to us," says Epstein.

Although Jin's pronounced accent made him difficult to understand when he first began teaching, students have always loved him, Epstein says: "They know that he's a very special writer and teacher." Jin's grasp of written English is excellent, and his writing style has such succinct clarity that the Boston Globe was moved to marvel at the "nearly telegraphic objectivity with which he paints difficult truths" about life in contemporary China.

"It's a style that I envy," Epstein says. "There are no great flourishes, (but) his style is quite exact and precise. ... Sometimes he says something in the most direct way, and that's something I wish I could do."

Epstein and Jin will participate in two New York State Writers Institute events Tuesday at the Assembly Hall of the Campus Center on the University at Albany's uptown campus, 1400 Washington Ave., Albany. A seminar takes places at 4:15 p.m., reading at 8 p.m. Both are free and open to the public. 442-5620.

Turning the tables on the witchhunters

In "San Remo Drive," Leslie Epstein recounts the testimony of his father, Philip Epstein (named Norman Jacobi in the novel), before the House Un-American Activities Committee.

Mr. Walter: "You understand that your employer, Mister Jack Warner, indicated that you were suspect in his eyes because, and I quote, 'He is always on the side of the underdog.' Do you wish to respond to that? Or do you wish to make a statement?

"No, I have no statement," Norman said. "I am ready to answer the questions." ...

A second cameraman surveyed the congressmen in their leather chairs, including the one who was just now putting on a pair of reading glasses.

"I have one question for the witness," he said, "though it comes in two parts. Have you ever been a member of a subversive organization? That's part one. And part two is, If so, name that organization. May we proceed with your answers?" ...

The camera caught Norman in a medium close-up. He nodded again. "In response to the first part of your question, the answer is, Yes." ...

Norman was already leaning forward again. His handkerchief, I thought, looked as white as a flower. "The answer to the second part of your question is, Warner Brothers."

There was a pause, whether of puzzlement or shock I could not say. Then someone cried, "Oh, my God!" The next thing I heard was laughter, ripples of it, then a roar of it. ...

(Later, the committee presses Norman to identify suspected Communists.)

"Very well, sir. Are you prepared now to give us these people by name?"

"I am." ... Norman, from an inside breast pocket, took out a piece of paper folded in squares. ... "Clyde Doyle," my father began. Then, a little louder: "Donald Jackson. John S. Wood. Francis E. Walter. Frank Tavenner -- "

The room was already in an uproar. Mr. Walter, red-faced, was smashing the gavel down all over the surface of the desk in front of him. Flashbulbs were going off like lightning. The audience was laughing even more loudly than before. Mr. Wood was on his feet now. "Why, he's giving the names of this committee!"
Leslie Epstein