August 18, 2005
A Read on Life
Lately, I've been thinking about two novels I recently enjoyed: "The Other Shulman" by Alan Zweibel (Villard, $23.95), and "Joy Comes in the Morning" by Jonathan Rosen (Picador, $14).
The two novels are strikingly different: One deals with confronting a marriage of long standing; the other is about getting married. One is comic with serious moments; the other serious with comic moments. Yet both feature protagonists trying to decide whether they are running toward something, or away from it.
"Shulman" is the tale of a middle-aged New Jersey stationery store owner. Married for more than 20 years, with three kids out of the house, he's stuck, personally and professionally, until he decides to run his way out of his life crisis. As he runs the New York City Marathon to benefit AIDS research, he narrates how he defeated his fears and "the Other Shulman."
Zweibel is happy to admit that the novel is autobiographical. Overall, Zweibel is so happy that his e-mail address begins with "happyalan." (I kid you not.) He's had an amazing run as a writer -- TV, plays, articles, jokes, screenplays, novels -- not too long ago, Billy Crystal thanked him from the stage of the Tonys for helping him create "700 Sundays."
He grew up on Long Island, attended college in Buffalo and, at an early age, started selling jokes for $7 apiece to Borscht Belt regulars like Morty Gundy. After college, he took all the jokes that were too contemporary for those comics and started performing them at Manhattan clubs such as Catch a Rising Star and The Improv, where he first met Larry David and Crystal, who used to drive him in from Long Island.
One night after performing, he was approached by a young man who said, "You are the worst comedian I've ever seen." Zweibel agreed. But Lorne Michaels liked his writing and hired him for his new show, "Saturday Night Live."
Zweibel's writing career has led to working with such diverse talents as Gilda Radner (their friendship inspired "Bunny, Bunny," a successful book and stage play that mixed fact and fiction), Eddie Murphy, Garry Shandling (Zweibel co-created "It's Garry Shandling's Show"), Jesse Jackson (for his appearance hosting "Saturday Night Live") and, more recently, Larry David on "Curb Your Enthusiasm."
But a few years ago, Zweibel started to wonder about his life, his career and his marriage.
One day, he saw a flier offering to train people to run a marathon to benefit AIDS Project Los Angeles (APLA). Out of shape, and possibly out of his mind, he signed up. In 2001, he ran (and completed) the New York City Marathon, held just months after Sept. 11. As he ran through the various New York City boroughs, Zweibel felt like he was running -- and occasionally walking -- through his life.
The plot for "The Other Shulman" arose out of that experience and a long-standing joke that goes: With all the weight he's lost over the years, there's another Zweibel out there. A portion of the book's proceeds are being donated to APLA.
Caveat emptor: If you are hankering for a challenging literary work set in the third world, look elsewhere. On the other hand, if you enjoy light summer reading that is comic, haimish and heartfelt, this is for you.
In another corner of the literary universe, Rosen's "Joy Comes in the Morning," also deals with characters who are stuck, and also contains glimmers of autobiography.
"Joy Comes in the Morning" (a quote from Psalms) begins with the attempted suicide of one character and ends with the successful self-inflicted death of another. Between these two events, a science reporter, whose father is a Holocaust survivor succumbing to Alzheimer's, falls for a young female rabbi who is dealing with her own crisis of faith. It is a love story, but filled with the complications of two people searching for themselves even as they search for each other. A friend of mine, whom I shall refer to as "The Shrink," describes Rosen's novel approvingly as "the sexy woman rabbi book."
Picasso said, "Art is a lie that tells the truth." That is particularly true of Rosen's "Joy." Rosen, the author of "Eve's Apple" and "The Talmud and the Internet," is a friend who was my editor at The Forward. So I know how well he mined the personal raw data of his life -- his wife is a rabbi, and his late father was a refugee from Germany -- to create altogether fictional characters that read true.
Rosen has charted new territory by writing a serious Jewish American novel (as opposed to an American Jewish novel). This may seem mere semantics, but the difference is evident in what drives the characters. The protagonists in "Joy" are not engaged in a flight from their Jewish forebears, or in a rush to assimilate; nor are they thumbing their noses at an America that does or does not embrace them.
To the contrary, "Joy" concerns young secular Jews engaged in becoming more Jewish. I won't call it a "Red State" novel, but it is about values, presenting the voice of a generation becoming more traditional not only in politics, but in religion, as well.
In sum: Two novels, very different, but each makes us consider what matters in our lives, and how our inner journeys can transform us and our relationships with those we love.
Tom Teicholz is a film producer in Los Angeles. Everywhere else, he's an author and journalist who has written for The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Interview and The Forward. His column appears every other week. Visit him online at www.tommywood.com.