'Responsible Men' a great debut

By C.J. LAIS JR, Staff writer
First published: Sunday, April 24, 2005

Oh, to be Edward Schwarzschild. It's not enough to have written a completely winning debut novel, "Responsible Men" (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill; 332 pages; $23.95); the intergenerational story is a tribute to the author's traveling salesman father -- who was adamant that his son not follow down the same path. Even raves from the likes of Entertainment Weekly and Kirkus Reviews, as well as from prize-winners Ha Jin and William Kennedy are just gravy.

What's likely to raise the UAlbany prof's buzz-worthiness is the inevitable movie that will be made from this picture-perfect tale. Its con-man milieu brings to mind "Matchstick Men," while its three generations of slightly shady men recalls Sidney Lumet's "Family Business." In style and circumstance (not to mention the cover art of a diner counter), one is reminded of "Empire Falls" by Gloversville native Richard Russo (coming next month to HBO). Why not get Philadelphia's own M. Night Shyamalan to direct this story set in the City of Brotherly Love?

Middled-aged Max Wolinsky is a slightly crooked salesmen returning to Philly after his wife's departure -- with the gardener Wolinsky himself hires -- and a year of self-imposed Floridian exile. He only plans to stay long enough for his son Nathan's bar mitzvah, but soon becomes embroiled in the dramas of another generation of Wolinskys. His Uncle Abe has suffered a stroke, and his father, Caleb, has been reduced to caring for him; both men put the hard sell on Max to stick around.

Meanwhile, Nathan wants to play baseball, but his grandfather pressures him into joining a kosher Boy Scout troop. While the teenager struggles with first-love traumas, his father unexpectedly falls for a woman -- a turn of events that might put the kibosh on his latest scam to set Max and Abe up financially for life. And Abe might be nearly mute, but his crafty mind is still running at top speed.

Schwarzschild, who has his gritty Philadelphia settings and dialogue down cold, provides moments of violence and moments of tenderness, and plenty of convoluted family dysfunction to keep the plot rolling. "Responsible Men" is a story about connection and re-reconnection, and of finding out what it means to be a man at any age. All of which makes Schwarzschild responsible for a great book.

C.J. Lais Jr. is a staff writer. He can be reached at 454-5562 or by e-mail at [email protected].

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