The Great Jewish Novel Is Relic of the 50′s

The late outpouring of love for Saul Bellow has an aftertaste-the realization that the days of the Great Jewish Novel are over. Other experiences from the last 30 years have elbowed aside the Jewish experience in the American imagination. Divorce and dysfunction stories, people of color stories, decline of the WASP aristocracy stories, that’s the game.

The simple explanation is success. Privilege and literature aren’t incompatible (just think of Tolstoy or Proust), but affluence is much harder material to work with than adversity, especially in an American vein. When you remember the post-war novels that put Jews on the map, you remember Augie March learning to fleece pennies from newspaper buyers in the Chicago train station, Nathan Zuckerman lusting for Short Hills from his aunt’s Newark apartment, Norman Mailer’s fuggin’ grunts in The Naked and the Dead .

All these characters had small-d democratic appeal; they were hugely sympathetic strivers. In The New York Times the other day, John Leonard referred to Jewish writing as a literature of exile. Well, Jews are no longer exiled in America. But they are steeped in feelings of exile and therefore have considerable fear and shame about success, which is why you’ve seen no big novels about the Jewish Yale experience or Jewish political experience, and why Philip Roth seems to have dropped the Spoiled Connecticut Writer material in favor of retrospective American sagas.

A stunning new film is caught in this shift and hurt by it. This week Miramax releases The Yards , which is about corruption among Queens subway contractors. The director, James Gray, has lifted a gritty story off page B3 of the The Times Metro section and transformed it into an elegant, operatic drama about the destruction of hope, with a startling performance by Mark Wahlberg as an ex-con trying to make a new start in his relative’s business.

For all its Queens details, the movie is vague about ethnicity. There’s a thug called Willie Gutierrez-Puerto Rican. And a pol called Arthur Mydanick (played by Steve Lawrence)-Jewish. So far, so good. But Mr. Wahlberg’s character is called Leo Handler, which seems kind of Jewish but isn’t. And the family that’s torn apart are the Olchins.

I had a drink with Mr. Gray at the Tribeca Grand to talk about this stuff, and was surprised to learn that he’s Jewish. Very Jewish-cerebral, funny, brilliant, self-deprecating.

“Aren’t Jews miserable?” he mused. “There’s the self-loathing, but also a kind of-even if we do reside in New York-a terrible feeling of not fitting in, of trying to assimilate. I think it was Vance Packard, in The Status Seekers , who said the reason Jews don’t drink, they’re afraid of giving themselves away …”

Mr. Gray said that the story of The Yards was based on his family life in Queens. His father was a college professor who started a subway contracting business very much like the business in the film and got caught up in a corruption scandal. And the destruction of the family in The Yards echoes what happened to Mr. Gray’s family. In the space of a couple of years, it went from a happy, toiling family to a blasted unit of one, following Mr. Gray’s mother’s death, his father’s troubles, his brother’s departure for medical school and his own departure to film school in southern California.

In Mr. Gray’s description, I heard themes I associate with my own Arrived Jewish life-our parents wobbling over and under success, their children’s path to the American elite steady, assured.

But James Gray didn’t write his movie Jewish.

“I wanted to make them almost archetypes,” he said. “You know-Johnny. Tony. Nicky. They’re intended to be Archie Bunker. Protestant, Central European–descent New Yorker. The New York that goes to the Elks Club.”

I don’t know what that Protestant, Central European New York is, and I don’t think Mr. Gray does, either. For all its brooding beauty, The Yards is damaged by this generic slipperiness at its core. It sacrifices the intensity of the particular. After all, what’s an ethnic archetype? Even Seinfeld , which tried to fudge some of its Jewishness, was more plain about who its people were.

James Gray is an attractively humble man who, at the end of our conversation, admitted stammeringly that he had bought himself a Cadillac. “It’s the only thing I own of any worth.”

I pressed him about why he didn’t indulge himself more, and he went on: “If you are making a movie which is, for all intents and purposes, a tragedy that attempts a sympathy with working-class people … I feel like I should maintain a kind of frugal existence so what I’m doing has a sincerity.”

But is the frugality real or faked? And is such a statement sincere or pretentious?

That gets at the larger artistic issue. The Jewish tradition is so joined with a belief in exile that it is difficult for Jews to deal sincerely with success. The writer Lynn Hirschberg points out that, as recently as the 70′s, there were great Jewish stories in the movies- The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz was about a hustler, and Save the Tiger was about Jack Lemmon’s Harry, a garmento and would-be arsonist. Wild, colorful characters.

“People don’t feel they have to be P.C. with Italians. For some reason, Italians love their depiction on The Sopranos as fat thugs,” Ms. Hirschberg says. “But with Jews, it feels like everything’s about the Holocaust now.”

Something’s been lost-a romance, an openness, a raffishness. I understand the reasons. Jews are so historically wary of success they’re scared to say a word about it now, but the result is a terrible guardedness about their experience. Where are the great Jewish loudmouths of yesteryear?

These issues have a political dimension, especially in the Year of Joe Lieberman. The Vice Presidential candidate gave a beautiful speech at the Democratic Convention last August in which he spoke of his father, the night bakery driver, and thereby held out a story of striving and adversity that seemed to offer the possibility of Lieberman-like success to little-d democrats everywhere (and surely elided the more privileged part of his father’s story, owning a liquor store).

Then, in September, Don Imus asked Mr. Lieberman about a troubling issue I injected into the campaign several months ago. Was it true, Mr. Imus asked, that Jews have a ban on interreligious marriage or dating? “No, there is no ban whatsoever,” said Senator Lieberman, who is Orthodox. This statement was promptly denounced by the rabbis, who pointed out that Jewish law is emphatic on the issue: Thou shalt not intermarry. (And interestingly, Lieberman’s lie has only been a story in the Jewish press, and the New York Post and The Washington Times ).

As Mr. Lieberman recognized, Jewish culture and doctrine about intermarriage is simply too problematic to talk about at a time when Jews have achieved such success in America. How can you get so much and be so parochial? Mr. Lieberman understood the possible affront and sidestepped it by being dishonest about a core fact of Jewish life.

The same close-mouthedness has affected Jewish artists, who cannot deal forthrightly with another central fact of Jewish life: privilege. Lies and circumspection are forgivable in politics. In art, they are merely boring.