Perfectly formed fiction

American storyteller proves to be at her best in the poignant evocation of characters on the periphery


The golden age of Jewish American literature began with a short story: In Dreams Begin Responsibilities by Delmore Schwartz. Since then, from Roth’s Goodbye, Columbus and Bellow’s Mosby’s Memoirs to Cynthia Ozick and Grace Paley, the short story has arguably been the great Jewish American literary genre.

Does Edith Pearlman belong in this company? This may seem a presumptuous question to ask about a prize-winning writer now in her mid-70s, who has just brought out her fourth book of short stories to great acclaim in America. The answer is yes — and no.

Binocular Vision is a mix of new and old, 18 stories republished from her previous books and 13 new ones. The book is a mix in other ways, too. Some are very Jewish: stories set in Israel, about the Holocaust and suburban American Jews. But the best are not. She is most at home with stories of middle Americans, living quiet lives in suburban Massachusetts.

There are some very good stories about groups: neighbours in an apartment building in Tel Aviv, a poker game in 1970s’ suburbia, guests with secrets in a mountain resort hotel in Hungary. But the best are about lonely people — “isolates” as she calls them.

Some are eccentric, others just on their own, like Nancy, the quirky, rootless young bohemian in Hanging Fire; Miss Huk, the mysterious receptionist in the Hungarian hotel;
Cornelia, a retired doctor, facing a battle with cancer; Valerie Gordon, the spinster nanny, who moves from family to family; and Milo, the therapist who all the suburban families turn to for advice about their children — all terrific characters, desperately sad and yet full of life and interest.

These stories are about the humanity of the lonely and they belong with the best contemporary American short fiction. Curiously, the more recent stories tend to be the most powerful. It is as if, after all these years, Edith Pearlman is finding a literary voice that really works for her. And a place: Godolphin, Massachusetts, where many of these stories are set (she lives in nearby Brookline).

She appears to know intimately these kinds of lives lived on the fringes of communities and families. Or perhaps it’s more the tension between groups and families, on the one hand, and those who don’t quite fit in, on the other. Judaism or the Holocaust are too big as subjects. These beautifully drawn accounts of lonely lives where we sense the — never overdone — suffering, are just right.

Start at the back — the last nine stories are the best — and then go back to the beginning. But the last nine alone are enough to establish her reputation here.

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