The space between self-respect and the art of the con

April 24, 2005|By Mary Carole McCauley | Mary Carole McCauley,Sun Staff

Responsible Men

By Edward Schwarzchild. Algonquin Books. 352 pages. $22.95.

In his debut novel, Edward Schwarzchild writes about a world with which he is closely acquainted, but which remains in important respects mysterious -- one of early-morning sales calls and roadside diners and bowling alleys and sealing the deal with a handshake.

Schwarzchild has written that his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather were salesmen, and that he made sales calls as a boy with his father. In Responsible Men, Schwarz-child's protagonist, Max Wolin-sky, is the kind of person Schwarzchild conceivably might have become, had not he been firmly dissuaded by his father from going into the family business.

Max is an essentially goodhearted, if ethically-challenged, Jewish textile salesman trying to avoid the shady side of the street, but constantly tempted to spin his will-o-the-wisp visions for gullible people who practically beg to be taken in.

In a sense, of course, Schwarzchild did go into the family business -- what writer isn't a kind of salesman? As the author puts it eloquently in the novel's first sentence, the con man (like the artist) "sells what would never exist." If Schwarzchild's first novel doesn't succeed as decisively as it might, it's because the author doesn't sell his material with sufficient conviction.

The novel is about Max's journey back to self-respect, beginning when he attends the bar mitzvah of his son, Nathan, in Philadelphia: Max's former wife is living with the loutish gardener. Max's father is rapidly getting worn out caring for his brother, who is afflicted with a stroke. Some thugs are convinced that Max is working a scam, and demand to be dealt in. And the scoutmaster of a Kosher Boy Scout troop offers to cut Max in on a business deal that sounds too good to be true.

It's all very jaunty and picaresque, and because the novel switches point-of-view with each chapter, the possibility of a character being humiliated (and therefore, the possibility of comedy) is on every page.

But, like comedy, this novel keeps its distance both from the characters and from the world the book creates. Responsible Men pulls readers along as effortlessly as if we were on water skis, but between the speed, motion and spray, it can be tough to appreciate the color of the water. Schwarzchild isn't a particularly visual stylist; he doesn't show us the sheen of light on hair, or give us the sound of gravel crunching under wheels. Instead, he settles for shorthand descriptions, such as "a very attractive Asian woman," that leave the reader frustrated.

In a similar way, the book skims along emotionally. When Max confesses to 13-year-old Nathan that he hasn't always been on the straight and narrow, there's no sense of embarrassment or shame on the part of either father or son.

That contrasts with an incident in the novel's most emotionally engaging chapter, set in the decades just after the turn of the century. Max's elderly uncle, Abe Wolinsky, recalls discovering at age seven that his father was an unethical lawyer -- a gradual realization freighted with disappointment and menace. Schwarzchild's handling of this material is masterful. It was the only time I didn't feel the author holding back -- and such restraint, of course, is crippling.

As Abe, himself a master salesman, says in the novel: "Always be closing."

That's fine advice, for a con artist or the real kind.

Mary Carole McCauley writes about the arts for The Sun.

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