As a kid growing up in Philadelphia, Edward Schwarzschild did a stint as a Kosher Boy Scout and hated it.
"Carrying two sets of dishes into the wilderness was a real turn-off for me," he said.
Now 40, Schwarzschild hails from a venerable tradition of writers who have mined their formative Jewish experiences for literary purposes. This makes sense, considering that his first novel, "Responsible Men" (Algonquin) due out April 8, revolves around a Jewish family in Philadelphia faced with the challenge of understanding their past and improving their present.
"I never intended to write a book about my father," Schwarzschild said. "But it's clear to me that I wrote this book as a way to understand him."
Schwarzschild will read from his book at the Café Club Fais Do Do in Mid-City on April 12, along with three other debut novelists selected for the 2005 spring First Fiction Tour. Founded last year by Cindy Dach, a manager of Changing Hands bookstore in Tempe, Ariz., the tour promotes like rock stars first-time authors by arranging a cross-country itinerary of readings in bars and clubs.
In addition, Schwarzschild has received his fair share of advance praise from a number of writers. Ha Jin, the award-winning author of "Waiting," calls it a "marvelous novel and moving, impressive debut."
"Responsible Men" revolves around Max Wolinsky, a salesman turned con man, who returns from his escapist life in Florida to attend his son's bar mitzvah in Philadelphia. Back in his hometown, he must face his ex-wife and her new boyfriend, reconnect with his son and attend to the needs of his aging father and ailing uncle.
Although the novel begins with Max performing one of his real estate scams on a nice elderly couple, Schwarzschild has made him likeable, along with a supporting cast of flawed-yet-endearing characters. And yes, while the main characters in the novel grow into more evolved individuals (Max gives up conning and meets a good woman. Nathan, his son, forgives his parents and winds up loving the Kosher Boy Scouts), Schwarzschild does not tie up every loose end and consequently creates a story that resonates as truer to life.
Antonia Fusco, Schwarzschild's editor at Alongquin, says she "was drawn to Ed's work because of the honest and gentle way in which he writes about the lives of men. It's unusual to come across a domestic story written from the male point of view," she said. "Ed's wry sense of humor and the joy he brings to his writing made me care for his characters, even when they're not responsible."
Schwarzschild, an assistant professor of American literature and creative writing at University at Albany, SUNY, describes his upbringing as classic Jewish American. While his grandmother grew up in a kosher home, he didn't. Raised Reform, he said his "transformative" Jewish experiences of his youth included his bar mitzvah and Boy Scout troop. Not until college did he discover that he could passionately engage his heritage through literature.
"It was such an awakening to read writers like Phillip Roth and Grace Paley," he said. "These writers spoke to me in a voice that was true to my world, my experiences and hinted at what I had yet to experience."
As the eldest son and the child of a salesman, Schwarzschild grew up with the deeply ingrained notion that he would become a doctor, majoring in pre-med and cramming for classes at Cornell University.
"I was convinced I could be a writer on the side, that I could just fax over my stories to The New Yorker," he said.
Schwarzschild eventually struck a compromise with the familial expectations. He would become a writer but earn a doctorate in the process.
"I took the responsible track," he said. "Sometimes I wonder what if I was that person who just went to live in New York City and write a novel. But in the end, I can see that I chose the right path."
After receiving his doctorate from Washington University, Schwarzschild continued on to Boston University's MFA creative writing program, a fellowship at Stanford and the pursuit of publishing short stories in literary journals. One of these stories won a prize in the journal StoryQuarterly, and agents began to call. Schwarzschild said that "was the one time in the publishing process when being the son of a salesman helped. I chose the agent who struck me as the best salesman."
After traveling with the First Fiction Tour, Schwarzschild hopes to finish up a collection of short stories and start work on a new novel. "That's the healthiest thing for me to do, as opposed to becoming obsessed over what reviews I might get," he said.
Above all, Schwarzschild hopes that readers of his book "will come away with a sense of recognition about their relationships with their parents or children. Whatever I've learned about writing a book, I know that it's not about instruction but about sharing experiences."
Schwarzschild reads with Miranda Beverly-Whittemore, Matthew Carnahan and Marya Hornbacher on April 12, 7:30 p.m. at Café Club Fais Do Do, 5257 W. Adams Blvd., Los Angeles. The event is sponsored by Book Soup in conjunction with the First Fiction Tour. For more information, call (310) 659-3110 or visit www.faisdodo.com.