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'A lucky life'

Culture | INTERVIEW: America may not have a better writer than Joseph Epstein, but his essays and short stories offer very different outlooks on life. The former editor of The American Scholar discusses his work, his religion, and the certain specter of the grave

Issue: "Iraq: The other caucuses," Jan. 31, 2004

This is the fifth in an occasional series of e-mail interviews with writers, scholars, and others who help form the culture in which we live. WORLD hopes that readers, by listening to influential people who do not necessarily share a Christian worldview, will be better equipped for discussion and evangelism, and will be challenged to sharpen their own understanding. (Previous interviewees: Paul Theroux, Brian Jacques, Anne Lamott, Charles Murray.)

JOSEPH EPSTEIN IS PROBABLY the best essayist in America and is now contending for the short story crown as well. Born in 1937 and educated in Chicago, he edited The American Scholar, journal of the Phi Beta Kappa society, from 1975 to 1997, and lectured on English and writing at Northwestern University from 1974 to 2002. His 15 books include the best-selling Snobbery and a new book of short stories with the edgy title Fabulous Small Jews (Houghton Mifflin, 2003). He lives with his wife in Evanston, Ill.

WORLD: Your essays tend to be jaunty and often optimistic, as if written by a Yankees fan, but your short stories are often about lonely, pessimistic individuals faced with divorce, death, or despair. They seem to have been written by a Red Sox or Cubs fan. If that distinction is accurate, why are they that way, and what do you think about the view that life is largely suffering?

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JE: You are not the first to point out that my stories, or at least some of them, can be dark. Of 18 stories in my recent collection, Fabulous Small Jews, a reviewer noted that there are 13 deaths. You didn't but might have added that I also throw in a fair amount of Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, cancer, heart attack, and general human disappointment, all at no extra charge.

I prefer to think that, on the way to the gallows, my characters-and, I hope, my readers along with them-also find much to amuse them. I justify some of the darkness by citing an astounding statistic that I hope won't shock your readers, and this is that the mortality rate continues to rest at 100 percent.

Why my essays should be jollier than my stories is not a question I've hitherto thought enough about. Perhaps it has to do with the fact-at least for me it is a fact-that essays have to do with ideas, arguments, memories, while stories are about instincts, feelings, the secrets of the human heart that are only revealed through characters put to the test of action by way of plot. The point of view of my essays, or so I like to think, is that of a fairly worldly gent who feels that, just because we're all going down to defeat one day, because death in the end makes us all losers, this shouldn't cause us to be glum. I fear that last sentence is very far from the standard Christian view of the afterlife, but there it is.

As for whether I think that life is largely suffering, allow me to come at the question by way of your sports metaphor. In answering it, I should say that, rather than considering myself a Yankees or a Cubs or Red Sox fan, my position is closer to that of a Florida Marlins fan: That is, life for me has lots of moments of wonder and even ecstasy, but I wouldn't be in the least surprised if somebody comes along and trades away my team's best players. I have not known many people who have got off the earth without knowing profound suffering and sadness; yet life is also wondrously rich in delight, deep pleasures, and flashes of happiness. Hope I don't get too many splinters from sitting so firmly on the fence on this tough question.

WORLD: Several stories in your new collection, Fabulous Small Jews, show men coming out of ruts. "Moe" beautifully depicts a person resigned to death within a year or two seeing how much his grandson needs him and resolving to have the bypass surgery he needs to live longer. "Artie Glick in a Family Way" shows a middle-aged man coming out of a rut to embrace marriage and two unborn children, and "Dubinsky on the Loose" ends with a 75-year-old in "a haze of elation" after having lunch with a woman he likes. Have you ever been in prolonged despair, and what brought you out of it?

JE: I think it fair to say that, just now, mine are not the most common kind of stories being written; what is more common is the story that ends in what I believe in the creative-writing classes is called an epiphany, or oblique, sometimes (in my view) rather too precious insight: "Daniel felt that the half moon, rising over the Bosphorus, would never appear quite the same to him ever again." These, as you will have gathered from my disdainful tone, are not my kind of story. In the stories I write, someone usually has to make a decision; this decision gives the stories what drama they possess. And these decisions almost always turn out to be moral decisions, often involving the need for someone to take responsibility. These decisions, too, frequently free a man or woman from the ruts that they find themselves in, as many of us do in mid-life or beyond.

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