On entering the middle years

Monday Book Review

April 10, 1995|By Jeffrey M. Landaw

WITH MY TROUSERS ROLLED: FAMILIAR ESSAYS. By Joseph Epstein. 320 pages. Norton. $25.

ONE CAN either go with the flow," Joseph Epstein writes, "or try to stop it. The first prospect renders a man ridiculous, the second hopeless. Yet another possibility is to take a seat on the sidelines, preferably in the shade, a glass of wine in one's hand, and not bark but laugh as the caravan passes."

For more than 20 years, Mr. Epstein, the editor of The American Scholar, has been watching the American caravan from the sidelines and inducing his readers to laugh with him. But now, in his fifth collection of essays, comes a slight but significant change in tone.

It may be his passage into middle age, or it may be the changes in his country, but Mr. Epstein's views seem darker now than they used to be. The present appears shoddier and more dangerous, the idea of being -- as he says in one of his titles -- "Nicely Out of It" is more attractive. Perhaps, also, he feels more determined to make a point that the rest of the world doesn't seem to want to hear. That's my guess as to why Mr. Epstein has begun to repeat themes, even passages, such as this:

"Now in my late fifties, I realize that I am not chronologically old; nor do I feel spiritually old. But . . . I happen to view my life not as malleable material, to be shaped and reshaped as often as the mood or the time-spirit takes me, but as a work of art -- possibly, I grant you, a botched one -- that I have been putting together for more than half a century and am not about to abandon now."

That also explains why Mr. Epstein says he identifies with older people, not those a decade or more younger. "The latter are the baby boom generation: The one to which I belong, the one that was expected to make history and did. We were the first generation ever to be offered the chance of permanent adolescence, and we took it, and the media we dominate show that we're having as much trouble letting it go as a substance abuser has giving up his favorite drug."

No wonder Mr. Epstein prefers to look back to a time when -- among other things -- it was easier to be a child because the grown-ups had no misgivings about being grown-ups. He makes it seem like a rare privilege to have been young in the age before rock 'n' roll, among "the 'uncultivated middle class,' or that class which lives in a certain comfort made possible by money but hasn't the least interest in culture." His description of his parents sketches the origins of his own sensibility: Conscientious about work and family, skeptical of all theories and pretensions, un-self-consciously pleased with the material fruits of modest success. They taught him right from wrong, but defied (by my estimate) three generations of Jewish-American stereotypes by otherwise leaving him alone.

The last two essays in the book are positively lyrical. "Boy 'N The Hood," on living in Chicago, strikes a theme that city dwellers can easily recognize. "Here To Buy Mink" is a tribute to Mr. Epstein's mother, whom he describes as "a presence, a force, not someone to be taken as part of the crowd or masses."

I don't want to suggest that Mr. Epstein has lost his energy or his interest in the present, getting angry at the world because his own powers are declining, as old fogies are supposed to do. In the first place, the picture isn't always accurate: Being an old fogy may be a thankless job, but somebody has to do it, especially now. In the second place, Mr. Epstein can still construct lines that are not only funny, but also leave you feeling about him the way he once wrote that he felt about William Hazlitt, the English essayist and critic of the Romantic era: grateful that someone more intelligent than yourself has said what you had been thinking.

Mr. Epstein says that he enjoys writing more as he grows older. May he enjoy what he calls the gift of perpetual middle age until the biblical 120 years.

I= Jeffrey M. Landaw is a makeup editor for The Evening Sun.

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