Good Ol’ Joe:The Kid Can Write

18 Nov

I hope I am not alone in appreciating an apparent increase in the publication of essay anthologies(both by a single author and a gaggle of writers).Whether this signals a renaisance in the literary stature of the personal essay is, I suppose, dross for the journalistic mill. It must however mean something that those hard-nosed bean counting types inhabiting the upper echelons of book publishing see the possibility of revenue. Mustn’t it?

Apropos of nothing, I have been thinking that quite a few of the books published under the ‘memoir’ rubric are, in fact, hybrid personal essays.I have in mind, Ben Anastas’s Too Good To Be True (New Harvest) and Richard Russo’s Elswhere (Knopf) As I intend to publish chats with Anastas and Russo, let me table this idea.

Essays in Biography bt Joseph Epstein

Joseph Epstein whose CV includes a prodigious list of accomplishments — none more meaningful to me than his keeping alive Karl Shapiro’s phrase small Jews, also the title of an Epstein’s story collection and his being a Chicago Rogers Park landsman— has a new tome,Essays in Biography*(Axios Press) Kid Epstein (which I have taken to calling him based on his highly amusing 70th birthday rumination, The Kid Turns 70: And Nobody Cares)anthologizes 40 different pieces on an array of figures from Saul Bellow, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, and Isaiah Berlin, to George Washington and Adlai Stevenson, to Joe DiMaggio and Alfred Kinsey. Here’s an excerpt from his take on Michael Jordan (He Flew through the Air):

When I was thirteen, my father allowed me to put up a wooden backboard and basket in our backyard in Chicago. The yard was small, mostly grass, the only concrete being a narrow sidewalk leading to the alleyway. I used that basket in all seasons, including insultingly cold Chicago winters when I would daily shoot a hundred free throws with my gloves on. At other times, I would play fantasy games. Since I have always been of the realist school, in personal life as in literature, I would limit my scoring to somewhere between 24 and 33 points a game, usually winning for my team by popping in two free throws after the clock had run out. Not in my sweetest fantasies could I ever imagine myself doing what Michael Jordan, the retired star of the Chicago Bulls, would do in actuality some 40 years later. If I was a realist even when grounded in fantasy, he, Michael Jordan, was a magic realist, soaring in life.

In Playing for Keeps, his book about Michael Jordan, David Halberstam uses the phrase “Jordanologist” to describe close students of the great player, marketing phenomenon, and international celebrity. Only now do I realize that, since 1984, when he left the University of North Carolina after his junior year to play with the Bulls, Jordanology has been, as the professors say, my subspecialty. Over this period of time I must have seen Michael—as we in Chicago refer to him—play perhaps a thousand games; even though I watched most of them on television, I feel that I know his facial expressions, his moods, his verbal responses at least as well as I do those of most members of my own family. When I acquired cable TV, I did so not chiefly but exclusively in order to see more of Michael before he closed out his career. The prospect of seeing him at night could lift my spirits during the day; actually watching him play—even through the cool medium of the screen—brought me the kind of ephemeral but never-to-be-gainsaid pleasure of a fine meal or a lightish aesthetic experience.

Maybe not so lightish as all that. Having had the chance to observe so much of Michael Jordan in performance may be the equivalent, in sports, of having had tickets to the early years of George Balanchine’s New York City Ballet. If this reference to Balanchine seems too elevated, the law of carefully measured accolades has long ago run out on Michael Jordan. By now he has been compared with nearly every genius the world has produced, with the possible exceptions of Goethe and Proust. In many quarters, he has become the standard by which genius in other fields is measured. “Frank Galati,” I heard a former president of Northwestern University say about a theatrical director who happens to teach there, “is the Michael Jordan of the contemporary theater.”

When Michael retired, Jerry Sloan, coach of the Utah Jazz, whom the Bulls twice defeated in the NBA finals on their way to winning six championships in eight years, said that he should be remembered “as the greatest player who ever played the game.” Sidney Green, a journeyman player and briefly a teammate, asserted that Jordan “was the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help us God.” Jayson Williams, the power forward for the New Jersey Nets, called him “Jesus in Nikes.” Bobby Knight, the coach of Indiana University, once remarked that we would not see his equal in our lifetimes and neither would our children or our grandchildren in theirs. Later he pushed things up a notch by stating that Michael Jordan was the greatest player of all time, not just of basketball but of any sport. My own view is that in Michael we had the reincarnation of Achilles, but without the sulking and without the heel.

“Kid” Joseph Epstein photo: Robert Birnbaum

Here’s a snippet on Art in Chicago from a 2003 chat I had with the Kid:

JE: One of the great delights of my life once was —you know the books you feel you should read. I read Edmund Wilson, the critic, saying, “After John Booth, the worst thing that happened to Abe Lincoln was Sandburg.”

RB: [both laugh heartily]

JE: It’s a kind of myth-making baloney.

RB: I guess it’s appropriate that the Sandburg Village boondoggle should be named after him.

JE: I think Chicagoans have great artistic institutions. The Art Institute is a great place. The architecture is still splendid, and new stuff is always interesting. But I think they aren’t blown away by artists. And I think it’s good. It keeps you grounded in some useful way. I remember Saul Bellow, who I used to see in the late ’70s, we would go to places and I would introduce him to people sometimes and someone would say, “Are you any relation to Charlie Bellows?” He was a big defense lawyer. One day I was watching a Cub game and it was Brickhouse the glorious Brick house, and there was a guy he would call “handsome young Jim West.” (let me say in parentheses, handsome next to Brickhouse, next to which we are both dazzling, you and I) And handsome young Jim West said, “Gee I saw on the front page of the Sun Times, Sparky Anderson’s picture.” I said, “Gee what’s the Sparker doing on the front page? I read the front page and it seem like a guy named Bellow won the Nobel Prize.” That’s Chicago and it’s good. If you are a writer you don’t expect people to say [in hushed tones], “Oh Mr. Epstein.” Sometimes it does happen and it’s a delight, but you are never a lion. And that’s good. In New York, one might be. It’s healthy philistinism. At thirty-seven I got a job teaching at Northwestern. Without a union card, I had no advanced degrees and was proud of it. I was living in Evanston and I call my mother and I say, “Mother, I got a job teaching at Northwestern.” She says, “Oh that’s nice. A job in the neighborhood.” Absolutely right, [laughs] all the air goes out of my tires.

The dyspetic Philip Larkin adulates:

Epstein’s work is well in the Addisonian line of succession that Cyril Connolly saw petering out in Punch and the professional humorists . . . Epstein is a great deal more sophisticated than they were, and a great deal more readable. His subjects are tossed up, turned round, stuck with quotations, abandoned and returned to, playfully, inverted, and finally set back on their feet, as is the reader, a little breathless but quite unharmed. But is essentially a merry-go-round, not a view to the death.

*not to be confused the book of the same name by John Maynard Keynes.

Currently reading The Round House by Louise Erdich (Harper)

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