Alan Lelchuk Biography
Alan Lelchuk comments:
Nationality: American. Born: Brooklyn, New York, 1938. Education: Brooklyn College, B.A. 1960; University College, London, 1962-63; Stanford University, California, M.A. 1963, Ph.D. in English 1965. Career: Assistant professor of English, 1966-75, and writer-in-residence, 1975-81, Brandeis University, Waltham, Massachusetts. Since 1985 professor of English, Dartmouth College, Hanover, New Hampshire. Visiting writer, Amherst College, Massachusetts, 1982-84; writer-in-residence, Haifa University, Israel, 1986-87. Associate editor, Modern Occasions quarterly, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1970-72. Guest, Mishkenot Sha'Ananim, Jerusalem, 1976-77. Awards: Yaddo Foundation grant, 1968, 1971, 1973; MacDowell Colony fellowship, 1969; Guggenheim fellowship, 1976; Fulbright grant, 1986. Agent: Georges Borchardt, 136 East 57th Street, New York, New York 10022.
American Mischief. New York, Farrar Straus, and London, Cape, 1973.
Miriam at Thirty-four. New York, Farrar Straus, 1974; London, Cape, 1975.
Shrinking: The Beginning of My Own Ending. Boston, Little Brown, 1978.
Miriam in Her Forties. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1985.
Brooklyn Boy. New York, McGraw Hill, 1989.
Playing the Game. Dallas, Baskerville, 1995.
Uncollected Short Stories
"Sundays," in Transatlantic Review 21 (London), Summer 1966.
"Of Our Time," in New American Review 4, edited by Theodore Solotaroff. New York, New American Library, 1968.
"Winter Image," in Transatlantic Review 32 (London), Summer 1969.
"Cambridge Talk," in Modern Occasions 1 (Cambridge, Massachusetts), Fall 1970.
"Hallie of the Sixties," in Works in Progress 6 (New York), 1972.
"Doctor's Holiday," in Atlantic (Boston), March 1981.
"New Man in the House," in Boston Globe Magazine, 29 March 1987.
"Adventures of a Fiction Boy," in Partisan Review (Boston), Fall 1989.
Tippy, with Jiri Weiss, 1978; What Ashley Wants, with Isaac Yeshurun, 1987.
On Home Ground (for children). New York, Harcourt Brace, 1987.
Editor, with Gerson Shaked, Eight Great Hebrew Short Stories. New York, New American Library, 1983.
Mugar Memorial Library, Boston University.
By Philip Roth in Esquire (New York), September 1972; "Lelchuk's Inferno" by Wilfrid Sheed, in Book-of-the-Month Club News (New York), March 1973; "The Significant Self" by Benjamin DeMott, in Atlantic (Boston), October 1974; "Faculty in Fiction: Images of the Professor in Recent Novels" by Frances Barasch, in Clarion (New York), June 1982; "Aaron's Rod" by Sven Birkerts, in New Republic (Washington, D.C.), 5 February 1990.
Some points about my fiction: A realism of extreme sensibilities and modernism of content … the intensity and ambiguity of the sensual life … a blurring of the line between the comic and the serious … vibrating the odd strings of obsession … character through sexuality, and sexuality as (native) social gesture … a mingling of lofty thought and contemporary vulgarity … playing out the deep comic disorders of our culture … some unnerving fables and comic myths of our time camouflaged by realistic garb and inhabited by real souls …
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Alan Lelchuk's first four novels recreate that rich Jewish-American intellectual life which synthesizes John Garfield with Bakunin. These cautionary tales dramatize the self-destructiveness inherent in political, artistic, and sexual revolt, the three frequently fused, as an academician (American Mischief), a woman photographer (Miriam at Thirty-four, Miriam in Her Forties), and a novelist (Shrinking) painfully test the boundaries of contemporary experience. American Mischief, Lelchuk's variation on The Possessed, explores 1960s campus upheaval through the contrapuntal voices of a radical student, Lenny Pincus ("Not the son of Harry and Rose Pincus of Brooklyn, but a boy with fathers like Reston and Cronkite, mothers such as Mary McCarthy and Diana Trilling"), and a liberal dean, Bernard Kovell ("a kind of Americanized version of Romanov-Quixote, a European Liberal-Idealist turned Massachusetts sensualist, tilting simultaneously at foolish theories and female bodies"). A wealth of political and literary allusions threatens to overwhelm the novel, as the protagonists share both their private agonies and extensive bibliographies with the reader. But the novel impresses with its vivid style, ultimately sane perspective, and brilliant bursts of imagination: the notorious episode detailing Norman Mailer's symbolically appropriate bloody end manages to outdo an already bizarre reality. Like Lelchuk's other novels, American Mischief attempts narrative complexity by telling its story through a variety of "documents": Lenny's preface; Kovell's journal focusing on his six mistresses; his lengthy speech during a campus uprising, interlarded with Lenny's comments; Lenny's "Gorilla Talk," an account of radical activities that occupies more than half the book. This stylistic attempt to heighten the dialectical tension between the two men fails because their voices sound so alike from the beginning that the fusion of their ideologies into a statement of concern for man's ultimate victimization seems predictable.
Victimization goes even further in Miriam at Thirty-four. The heroine's sexual experimentation (three lovers with a variety of backgrounds and tastes) parallels her exploration of the Cambridge setting, which is "a male with secrets … one whom she could arouse by uncovering different parts of his anatomy and photographing them." This obsession with exposing truth leads Miriam to take sexually revealing pictures of herself and exhibit them at a prestigious gallery to the sounds of "early Dylan, trio sonatas (Tartini? Bach?), the Beatles." Her final breakdown results from the uncomprehending responses of her audience: "they were cannibals who had just feasted on human flesh with no time yet for digestion. And the flesh was herself, Miriam." To provide multiple views of Miriam, Lelchuk supplements the narrative with her letters and notebook ("her self-therapy kit, her doctor between covers, her book of reason, reflection, questions …") Shorter and less ambitious than American Mischief, the novel primarily conveys Miriam's pathos and leaves the sources of her disaster uncertain: a society that simultaneously seeks and savages the new, or the self-destructive urges that are implicit in Miriam's authentic artistry? A similar uncertainty pervades Shrinking, which chronicles the breakdown of novelist/academician Lionel Solomon, victimized by both inner doubts and a hostile world epitomized by Tippy, a predatory young woman who humiliates him sexually, reveals his inadequacies in an Esquire exposé, and leads him on a strange journey into Hopi country. Elaborately narrated, Shrinking includes a foreword and afterword by Solomon's psychiatrist, letters from other characters, and the text of Tippy's article with Solomon's comments. The article forces a comparison of Tippy's version with the "real" experience, a contrast that underscores the novel's obsession with truth: "what happens in life, when put into fiction, can sound 'in poor taste' and be near impossible to write about." This apologia and Lelchuk's witty parodies of reviewers almost disarm criticism, but cannot obscure the catch-all quality of the book: essays on Hopi culture and Melville, however they reflect the workings of Solomon's mind, are too long for the effects they achieve, and Lelchuk's wit seems more forced, less outrageous than in American Mischief.
Miriam in Her Forties lacks much of the excitement and the sense of discovery of Miriam at Thirty-four, despite the weaknesses of the original. The sequel provides Miriam with an overly facile ability to analyze and resolve the types of problems that threatened to destroy her ten years earlier. The rape by a black man that triggered her breakdown in the original seems to have strengthened her to the extent that she now responds to a renewed threat from the rapist by using gangster-government ties to imprison him on trumped-up charges. She then helps arrange his release and rehabilitation, though the outcome of these efforts is left ambiguous. Like the teenage Aaron of Lelchuk's latest novel, Brooklyn Boy, who is seduced by a Jamaican librarian, Miriam must investigate the meaning of black-white sexuality. She may reject such a relationship for herself, as she does the lesbian overtures of a feminist artist, but she certainly considers the possibilities. Besides, she already has commitments to an emblematic Israeli, and WASP surgeon, with whom she experiences Maileresque sex in an almost deserted medical school lecture hall, and she has recently come to accept the validity of masturbation (in an implicit tribute to Roth). These teasing echoes of slightly older contemporaries seem appropriate in a writer very conscious of his place in the pantheon of American-Jewish authors and give the book some leavening wit. Significantly, despite her anxieties and occasional bouts of dangerous sex, Miriam sometimes echoes Bellow's Sammler in her sense of being the one sane person in a lunatic world: "In short, one is ready at last for the higher stage—wisdom, contemporary-style. So, wisdom, where do you reside?" The novel's chief weakness, in addition to the sentimentalized treatment of Miriam's son and some easy anti-Cambridge satire, is the third-person narrative voice which often unconvincingly infuses Miriam's experiences with an instant analysis that sounds more like the author's notes than a transcript of Miriam's mind. This technique threatens to stifle her distinctiveness and to parody her responses to serious issues.
Brooklyn Boy and Playing the Game are Lelchuk's most conventional work thus far, though both novels introduce material that almost unbalances their narrative flow. Brooklyn Boy is an expansion of the slightly earlier On Home Ground (designed "for young readers"). The novel develops Aaron's obsession with the Brooklyn Dodgers and the resultant conflict with his European-born father, who has a different set of priorities for his son, but then the novel seems to abandon this theme to trace Aaron's interest in writing and his job as a deckhand on a freighter that in the final scene heads up the Congo so that Aaron can complete his education with blacks begun in his affair with the Jamaican librarian. Unfortunately, the most lively sections of Brooklyn Boy are the excerpts from Aaron's school reports on local history. Though the novel shifts, early on, to a first-person narrative, it fails to provide Aaron with a plausible voice, and the reader has met variants of the character in other coming-of-age works (On Home Ground, which focuses on the father-son relation, is on its own terms the stronger of the two narratives).
Sidney Berger, the protagonist of Playing the Game, a fifty-one-year-old assistant coach with a Ph.D. in history, is given the opportunity to coach basketball at an ivy-league college and manages to produce a Cinderella team that attracts international media coverage. The team members suggest a World War II bomber crew film—black, Hispanic, native American, white ethnic, and even a Soviet Jew. Some of the boys have problems that hint at serious tensions later on, but these problems, like Berger's with the college and the NCAA, get easily resolved, primarily through Berger's commitment to coaching and basic decency. What inspires the team to victorious exploits is Berger's practice of half-time reading from key American writers like Parkman and Thoreau, whose prose apparently awes the players into an almost mystical awareness of the meaning of America, a prose that stimulates them to a better game than elaborate discussions of strategy or the personal humiliations inflicted by some coaches would have accomplished. One problem with these long excerpts, aside from their breaking the tension of the novel, is that the prose and its ideas are more exciting than anything in the framework narrative and leave the reader reluctant to return to the main story, a reluctance stemming partly from the stereotyped portraits of the players and various college and sports officials. Berger's voice, which narrates the story, seems at times a surrogate for the author's views on sports, education, and current American values, and only rarely conveys the idiosyncratic flavor of Lelchuk's earlier protagonists.
Lelchuk's shift to the relatively conventional material of these last two novels perhaps provides a breathing space from the bravura performances of earlier works. Admirers of Lelchuk's talent anticipate a return to his distinctive voice, often brilliant, often charmingly irrelevant to the apparent themes of the books, and often suggesting an underlying despair that the writing can only imperfectly capture.