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Jay Neugeboren Biography

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Nationality: American. Born: New York City, 1938. Education: Columbia University, New York, B.A. 1959 (Phi Beta Kappa); Indiana University, Bloomington, M.A. 1963. Career: Junior executive trainee, General Motors Corporation, Indianapolis, 1960; English teacher, Saddle River Country Day School, New Jersey, 1961-62; teacher, New York City public high and junior high schools, 1963-66; preceptor in English, Columbia University, 1964-66; lecturer, Stanford University, California, 1966-67; assistant professor, State University of New York, Old Westbury, 1968-69. Since 1971 writer-in-residence, University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Awards: Bread Loaf Writers Conference De Voto fellowship, 1966; Transatlantic Review novella award, 1969; National Endowment for the Arts grant, 1973; Guggenheim fellowship, 1977; Massachusetts Council on the Arts fellowship, 1978; American Jewish Committee, best novel prize, 1981; Smilen-Present Tense award, 1982; PEN Syndicated Fiction prize, 1982-88 (6 prizes); National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, 1989. Agent: Richard Parks, 138 E. 16th St., New York, New York, 10003.

PUBLICATIONS

Novels

Big Man. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1966.

Listen Ruben Fontanez. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, and London, Gollancz, 1968.

Sam's Legacy. New York, Holt Rinehart, 1974.

An Orphan's Tale. New York, Holt Rinehart, 1976.

The Stolen Jew. New York, Holt Rinehart, 1981.

Before My Life Began. New York, Simon and Schuster, 1985.

Short Stories

Corky's Brother and Other Stories. New York, Farrar Straus, 1969;London, Gollancz, 1970.

Penguin Modern Stories 3, with others. London, Penguin, 1970.

Don't Worry about the Kids: Stories. Amherst, Massachusetts, University of Massachusetts Press, 1997.

Uncollected Short Stories

"My Son, The Freedom Rider," in Colorado Quarterly (Boulder), Summer 1964.

"Connorsville, Virginia," in Transatlantic Review (London), Winter1969.

"My Life and Death in the Negro American Baseball League: A Slave Narrative," in Massachusetts Review (Amherst), Summer 1973.

"The Place Kicking Specialists," in Transatlantic Review (London), Fall-Winter 1974.

"Monkeys and Cowboys," in Present Tense (New York), Summer1976.

"A Worthy Cause," in Willmore City 6-7 (Carlsbad, California), 1978.

"Uncle Nathan," in Ploughshares (Cambridge, Massachusetts), vol.4, no. 4, 1978.

"His Violin," in Atlantic (Boston), November 1978.

"Kehilla," in Present Tense (New York), Winter 1978.

"Star of David," in Tri-Quarterly (Evanston, Illinois), Spring 1979.

"The St. Dominick's Game," in Atlantic (Boston), December 1979.

"Poppa's Books," in Atlantic (Boston), July 1980.

"Bonus Baby," in John O'Hara Journal (Pottsville, Pennsylvania), Fall 1980.

"Visiting Hour," in Shenandoah (Lexington, Virginia), Fall 1980.

"Noah's Song," in Present Tense (New York), Winter 1980.

"Daughter," in Confrontation (New York), Spring 1981.

"When the Cheering Turned to Sorrow," in Inside Sports (Evanston, Illinois), May 1981.

"Death and the Schoolyard," in Boston Globe Magazine, 3 May1981.

"The 7th Room," in Rendezvous (Pocatello, Idaho) Summer 1981.

"Leaving Brooklyn," in Literary Review (Madison, New Jersey), Fall 1981.

"Jonathan," in Tri-Quarterly (Evanston, Illinois), Winter 1981.

"The Imported Man," in Midstream (New York), February 1982.

"The Golden Years," in New England Review (Hanover, NewHampshire), Spring 1982.

"Before the Camps," in Congress Monthly (New York), April 1982.

"Lev Kogan's Journey," in Boston Globe Magazine, 6 June 1982.

"The Year Between," in Boston Review, January 1983.

"On a Beach near Herzlia," in The Ploughshares Reader, edited byDeWitt Henry. Wainscott, New York, Pushcart Press, 1985.

"Cold Storage," in Massachusetts Review (Amherst), Spring 1985.

"Fix," in Denver Quarterly, Spring 1985.

"Stairs," in Present Tense (New York), Fall 1985.

"Abe's Room," in Confrontation (New York), Fall 1985.

"Drawing Home," in San Francisco Chronicle, 22 December 1985.

"1945," in Floridian, 5 September 1987.

"What Satisfaction Canst Thou Have Tonight?" in Columbia (NewYork), October 1987.

"About Men," in American Scholar (Washington, D.C.), Winter1987.

"High Concept," in Confrontation (Greenvale, New York), Spring1988.

"Tolstoy in Maine," in New Letters (Kansas City), Spring 1988.

"Workers to Attention Please," in Louder than Words, edited byWilliam Shore. New York, Vintage, 1989.

"How I Became an Orphan in 1947," in Willow Springs (Cheney, Washington), Spring 1989.

"Your Child Has Been Towed," in Gettysburg Review (Gettysburg, Pennsylvania), Autumn 1989.

"In Memory of Jane Fojarbi," in Tikkun, September 1989.

"Minor 6ths, Diminished 7ths," in Gentlemen's Quarterly (NewYork), June 1990.

"Overseas," in Michigan Quarterly Review (Ann Arbor), Summer1990.

"Have You Visited Israel?" in New Letters (Kansas City), Summer1991.

"Dept. of Athletics," in Conference Quarterly, Winter 1992.

"What Is the Good Life?" in Gettysburg Review (Gettysburg, Pennsylvania), Autumn 1992.

"Meanwhile Back on the Word," in The American Scholar (Washington, D.C.), Summer 1994.

"Where Do We Live Now?" in Tikkun, September/October 1994.

Plays

The Edict (produced New York, 1981).

Radio Play:

The Stolen Jew, 1980.

Television Play:

The Hollow Boy, 1991.

Other

Parentheses: An Autobiographical Journey. New York, Dutton, 1970.

Poli: A Mexican Boy in Early Texas (for children). San Antonio, Texas, Corona, 1989.

Imagining Robert: My Brother, Madness, and Survival: A Memoir. New York, Morrow, 1997.

Transforming Madness: New Lives for People Living with Mental Illness. New York, William Morrow, 1999.

Editor, The Story of "Story" Magazine: A Memoir, by Martha Foley.New York, Norton, 1980.

*

Critical Studies:

Statement by Ian Watt, in Listen Ruben Fontanez, London, Gollancz, 1968; "Parentheses" by Charles Moran, in Massachusetts Review (Amherst), Fall 1970; "From Kerouac to Koch" by Michael Willis, in Columbia College Today (New York), Winter-Spring 1971; "A Decade of the Ethnic Fiction of Jay Neugeboren," in Melus (Los Angeles), Winter 1978 and article in Twentieth-Century American-Jewish Fiction Writers edited by Daniel Walden, Detroit, Gale, 1984, both by Cordelia Candelaria; interview with Steven Goldleaf, in Columbia College Today (New York), December 1979, and "A Jew Without Portfolio" by Goldleaf, in Partisan Review (Boston), Summer 1983; interview in Literary Review (Madison, New Jersey), Fall 1981; "Wonderful Lies That Tell the Truth: Neugeboren Reviewed" by Peter Spackman in Columbia (New York), November 1981.

* * *

It is easy, perhaps too easy, to dismiss all American-Jewish novelists as confirmed self-haters, as "know-nothings" bent on turning Jewish life into a vulgar joke. In this respect, Jack Portnoy of Philip Roth's 1969 Portnoy's Complaint speaks up for those who have grown impatient with their belligerent sons: "Tell me something, do you know Talmud? Do you know history? … Do you know a single thing about the wonderful history and heritage of the saga of your people?" And while such charges are true enough about the likes of Alexander Portnoy—and his wise-cracking creator—they are no longer an accurate assessment of contemporary Jewish-American fiction. Writers like Cynthia Ozick, Arthur Cohen, and Hugh Nissenson have made mighty efforts on behalf of a Jewish aesthetic, one that would draw its sustenance from Jewish sources both wider and deeper than suburban assimilation. With The Stolen Jew Jay Neugeboren—a journeyman writer with a half-dozen volumes to his credit—adds himself to their number.

The Stolen Jew is a thick, complicated novel, but basically it is about the inextricable connections between personal memory and Jewish history, between the patterning that art makes possible and the insistencies of life, between an aging ex-writer named Nathan Malkin and his obligations to those, living and dead, who comprise his "family." The result is a novel-within-a-novel, as Nathan rewrites "The Stolen Jew," hoping to sell the manuscript at a high price on the Russian black market and, thus, to raise money to aid the refusniks. Whole chapters of Nathan's novel are interspersed with the Neugeboren's; each refracts upon the other. As Nathan puts it: "A true mosaic was made by shattering the original picture—and putting it together again." The Stolen Jew was selected as best novel of 1981 by the American Jewish Committee and, suddenly, Neugeboren became a writer to reckon with. As he himself suggests in a recent interview:

In my early books [e.g. Big Man or Listen Ruben Fontanez ], I used to pride myself on their "objective" quality. I mean, I don't think I'd ever done an autobiographical novel in a way that even anyone who knew me could feel. My books always seemed to be very much about other things. I think that was one way, in my own life, of not dealing with certain materials, potentially very rich materials, things that I do know about, but also material that I was afraid of, and felt I couldn't handle…. Now, with The Stolen Jew I've found a subject, a subject that comes from deep personal wells with me.

Before My Life Began is another installment in Neugeboren's continuing effect to combine aspects of traditional fiction (character, plot, naturalistic surface) with experimentation. As Neugeboren would have it, describing his new aesthetic manifesto, "I'd like to raise some of the questions some of the innovative writers are raising about the relation to art to life, but I would like to do it without losing the nineteenth-century novel—without losing character, history, story, the love of these things." In The Stolen Jew the result was as compelling as it was densely textured; with Before My Life Began one feels Neugeboren's ambition insisting too much:

Oh you are so good inside, David, don't you know that? You're a truly good and strong person, and there aren't many of your kind left. It's just so hard for me to watch you walking through the world, pulled on from so many sides, without my being able to help. I keep wanting to run in front of you—the court Jester, yes?—so I can steer you away from Evil and Hate and Anger and Cruelty and all the forces of Darkness—so I can point you to the true path—to righteousness and to light and to happiness.

For an author who can capture speech rhythms so accurately, who can reduplicate the Brooklyn streets of his doomed protagonist, David Voloshin, so well, such flights through airy abstraction may strike one as embarrassing. Before My Life Began is the story of a man forced by circumstances to live "two" lives—one as the David Voloshin who grows up in Brooklyn during the years immediately after World War II; the other as Aaron Levin, a civil rights activist during the mid-1960s.

The problem with Neugeboren's ever-thickening plot is that David, as a character, gets lost in the process. Somewhere, despite the rich texture and the patches of lyrical prose, there is no "David" one can grab hold of. He reappears as Aaron Levin, Freedom School teacher and civil rights activist, a man out to do dangerously good work in the Deep South. Once again, Neugeboren has an admirable feel for that time, that place, but he cannot quite resist those moments when David/Aaron speculates abstractly about his situation:

Sometimes, as now, he feels that his second life—all the years that have passed since he left Brooklyn, along with all the years to come—will only prove to be a rumination on his first life…. Why is it so, he wonders—that truth sometimes has the potential to destroy, while lies can save?

Given the displacement and wrenching dislocations of Neugeboren's protagonist, we are hardly surprised that he seeks pockets of respite. Unfortunately, Neugeboren protests too much about the happiness Voloshin/Levin presumably achieves. Before My Life Began ends in a litany of future tenses, of those movements back to a Brooklyn that will bring the novel—and David's life—full circle:

He will take his boys to his old neighborhood and show them his street and his house and the courtyards and the alleyways. He can see the four small rooms of his apartment, can see himself walking through them with his boys, room by room. The rooms are clean and white and empty, freshly painted and full of pale morning light—the way they might have been, he thinks, before his life began.

Evidently one can go home again, at least in the final vision of Before My Life Began. In Poli: A Mexican Boy in Early Texas, Neugeboren departs from the urban Jewish landscape of his previous fiction to tell the tale of quite another young initiate—and in the genre of the juvenile book, this one suggested for grades seven upward. But if Neugeboren's last works of fiction suggest differing views of childhood—either recaptured or imagined out of whole cloth—his growing readership is, I suspect, much more interested in the treatments of adulthood that lie in Neugeboren's novels as yet unwritten.

Sanford Pinsker

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