Nebraska Center for Writers

Chimney Rock What the Critics Say
About Gerald Shapiro

AMERICAN JEWISH FICTION
BAD JEWS
FROM HUNGER
LITTLE MEN


American Jewish Fiction: A Century of Stories
Copyright © 1999
by Gerald Shapiro
Bison Books
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Shapiro's vigorous and highly entertaining collection of 23 stories forms a valuable complement to Ilan Stavans's current Oxford Book of Jewish Short Stories Though some better-known contemporaries are represented by such perhaps overfamiliar pieces as Saul Bellow's "A Silver Dish" and Cynthia Ozick's "Envy," Shapiro also offers such unconventional delights as a fine, wry Bernard Malamud story ("The Lady of the Lake") and Philip Roth's "On the Air," a dazzling display of verbal comic energy that first appeared nearly 30 years ago in Theodore Solotaroff's American Review. The selections are uniformly well chosen to portray familiar component parts of the Jewish-American experience: immigration, Holocaust survival, assimilation, generational conflict, and the hard-fought preservation of traditional culture. One regrets the omission of writers like Daniel Fuchs and Lore Segal, but appreciates the vivid presences of Steve Stern (his frisky "The Tale of a Kite"), Robin Hemley (whose ironical "The 19th Jew" is a beauty), Melvin James Bukiet, and the precociously gifted and justly acclaimed Allegra Goodman. There isn't a dud to be found in this consummately readable anthology. — Kirkus Reviews


Bad Jews
Copyright © 2004
by Gerald Shapiro
U of Nebraska P
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Leo Spivak is a bad Jew. So are Shifman and Rosenthal and Suskind. They drink, they smoke, they lust in their hearts; they stagger blindly into one promised land after another. Bad Jews and Other Stories form a nuanced and comic vision of life, love, and spiritual adventurism among the determinedly secular class of contemporary American Jews.
These are stories about exile. In the title story, Leo Spivak, a Chicago marketing executive, finds himself trapped in the relentless heat of Tucson, utterly unfit to mourn the death of his aged, decrepit, nov-very-beloved father: "He tried half-heartedly to recall the prayers he'd learned as a boy, but all he could dredge up were tattered fragments, a shred or two of melody, a few unintelligible syllables. Well, who was he kidding?"
Cut off from the character-building hardships their parents and grandparents endured, unable to reach the safety and comfort of faith because of their inability to believe in much of anything, the characters of Bad Jews and Other Stories meander through the moral landscape of their lives in a kind of loopy navigation of the Children of Israel's route home. Along the way, they suffer a range of antic, often absurd misadventures. And, as often as not, they find redemption as well as disaster — redemption that comes when it's least expected, from the most improbable sources: the flight of a flock of homing pigeons, the deeply satisfying ache of a broken nose, the soft caress of a dying woman. — from the jacket

Gerry Shapiro's stories delight us, and make us squirm, in the ways that good writing, and only good writing, can do. — Francine Prose

Gerald Shapiro manages to pull off that rare feat of writing fresh, surprising stories that are, at the same time, clearly informed by the long, rich tradition of Jewish-American fiction. Short stories do not get any funnier or any sadder — any wiser or more beautifully written than these simultaneously entertaining and heartbreaking stories. — Marly Swick


There's an oft-quoted thespian's line: Dying is easy, comedy is hard. As writers go, one either has a comic gift or doesn't. Gerald Shapiro has it. For me, that rare combination of comedy and emotion is the mark of a master. There's another oft-quoted line: Laughter is good for the soul; do your soul a favor and read Bad Jews and Other Stories. — Stuart Dybek

As Rabbi Futterman tells Elliott Suskind in "Suskind the Impresario": "if the mistake you make is bad enough, one is all it takes." This is a premise for tragedy, but Shapiro shapes it into high comedy in the nine stories in his second collection. ... In Shapiro's pessimistic world, even when a character gets what he wants, it immediately evokes a feeling of doom. Brimming with keen insight into the psyches of hilarious, even lovable losers, the wacky brilliance of these remarkable stories marks Shapiro as a writer to watch. — Publishers Weekly (starred review)

Shapiro shows his readers the way home both emotionally and spiritually with his abiding compassion and tightly wound humor. — Booklist

Gerald Shapiro casts an incisive eye over his own contemporaries. ... The two most memorable stories are about Shifman, a young colleague of Spivak's who has cancer. He manages to defeat Hodgkin's disease but not Spivak, who, true to form, cheats him out of his job. Somewhere in between there is a poetic, filmlike interlude where Shifman and his girlfriend befriend a mismatched elderly Jewish couple — an uncouth, loudmouthed man and his shy, cancer-stricken wife. The Milmans don't take up muchspace in Shapiro's book, but they are perfect. I loved the description of Mrs Milman's voice as "rich and ruined, like burnt sugar." — The New York Times

To judge from Gerald Shapiro's wonderful new story collection, Bad Jews, conflict, exaltation and suffering follow his displaced generation of wandering Jews everywhere, from the "old world" of Jewish Cleveland to the lonely frontier of Oregon, from yuppie Chicago to the wilds of Nebraska. As evidenced by his previous collection, From Hunger, Mr Shapiro's Jewish literary imagination draws deeply from at least two rich sources: the immigrant world of Bernard Malamud's Bronx shoemakers and Brooklyn egg candlers, figures burdened and enshrined, identified only by their last names, and the antic, often wickedly satirical vision of Jewish American manners found in Philip Roth's writing.
Mr Shapiro's characters appear, above all, lost: a generation of Jewish baby-boomers floating, unmoored from identity-conferring sources offered by family, faith and region. Facing sickness and divorce, their own and their parents' mortality, they seek salvation through nostalgia, self-pity and rage.
In the end, Bad Jews marks the emergence of yet another original voice on the contemporary Jewish American literary scene — a voice that registers in often richly comic and profoundly moving ways what Irving Howe called our "involvements and confusions with Jewishness." Mr Shapiro, like his artist alter-ego Rosenthal, likes "the sound of Yiddish in his mouth," and for attentive readers, Bad Jews resonates with the familiar overtones — comic and fantastic — of Jewish American writing. — Forward


From Hunger
Copyright © 1993
by Gerald Shapiro
U of Missouri P
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"To say that this past year had been a bad one would be to insult all the other bad years of Levidow's long life. As he was apt to tell anyone who would listen, every day fresh misery poured on his head. Fruit spoiled as he carried it home from the market. Cars splashed mud and slush on him, even on the sunniest afternoons. ... Pigeons flew for miles to soil his shoulders. A piece of bad fish at a lunch counter landed him in the emergency room at Mount Sinai, where someone stole his glasses.
"'What are you doing to me?' he moaned toward heaven. 'You've got the wrong man.'"
When God tells Levidow to buy a big blue car and get out of town, he dares to think that his suffering might be over. Instead he begins a journey that will put him out on the open highway with a reincarnation of himself as a much younger man, a hideous woman and an oversupply of Dr Brown's soda. His is just one of the journeys undertaken by the characters of From Hunger. With wit and irony, Gerald Shapiro leads us from a London park to the streets of Chicago, from the Vietnam War Memorial to a New York art gallery, as his characters search for sustenance in a world full of hunger.
In a stroke of brilliance, solitary Altshuler, the failing, forty-ish shoe designer of the title story, invents an open-toed, stiletto-heeled hiking boot that makes him rich. But money doesn't satisfy his unnamed longing. When his 380-pound Uncle Phil comes to visit, Altshuler learns that there are cravings even greater than his own. "I been hungry my whole life," Uncle Phil says, as he eats his way through barbecued ribs and bags of corn chips, toward an inevitable finale with a meatball sandwich.
During his annual research trip to London in "Golders Green," Ted Lustig, an inept scholar, searches for purpose in the life of an obscure German writer whose greatest achievement was his own suicide. Lustig is obsessed with the writer whose brilliant failure mimics his own. But when he meets the aging Anna Peltzman, he begins to realize that meaning isn't always revealed in dramatic moments, but rather in far more puzzling ways.
Lenny Schrank is inexplicably drawn to the city of his father's youth in "The Community Seder," where he happens upon a mysterious synagogue filled with faces from his past. "Let anyone who is hungry, come in and eat," chants the congregation. What Lenny finds at the Passover celebration is an exquisite recognition of all that is missing from his life — and a brief moment of community.
With wonderfully idiosyncratic characters and deft use of detail, Gerald Shapiro takes us beyond the grimness of the lives of his characters to reveal the hunger — and the hope — in us all. — from the jacket

A promising first collection of nine stories abut men full of Weltschmerz and tangled up by affairs of the head. Shapiro's sardonic delivery is leavened by a black humor reminiscent of Bruce Jay Friedman. — Kirkus Reviews

In a dozen short stories, Shapiro conveys the angst and appetites of many appealing and appalling characters. ... There is plenty of humor and emotion in these well-crafted tales of modern life. — Booklist

Shapiro's prose is often acerbic and witty, but his heart is compassionate as he allows his bemused men a flash of insight and the gift of a second chance. — Publishers Weekly

These stories explode out of the Jewish experience, wonderfully funny and poignant, full of mystery and that particularly Jewish kind of suffering that brings with it its own comfort. Shapiro's characters flail away at their fates, tossing off one-liners as they wipe their brows. These stories are an odd blend of naturalism and fantasy that make sense because they spring so richly from a tradition millennia old. People address a God who snarls back at them like a surly uncle; they are chased by phantom lovers, forced into situations they would not have chosen for themselves, because there are lessons to be learned. I was hungry for these stories the way one is hungry for experience. — Paul Ingram, Midwest Bookseller

The moral fables collected between the covers of From Hunger remind me of nothing so much as Bernard Malamud's early fictions. Mentshlekhkayt, that complex structure of value and action that vests its hope for redemption in the "Jewish heart," is not the way one would usually describe Jewish-American fiction in the 1990's, but, with Shapiro's work, the term is both appropriate and earned. The Yiddish phrases and, more important, the Yiddish heartbreak he invokes are neither an affectation nor an occasion for cheap exoticism. — Sanford Pinsker, Exponent Extra,

Gerald Shapiro's From Hunger is a book that made me laugh out loud many times. And for that reason I thought it could not be serious, earnest, or profound. But even during the great orgy of reading I went through for this roundup, I kept remembering lines and moments in Shapiro's stories. He does magic realism, but instead of being a South American exotic, he is a Jew in Nebraska, which is still fairly exotic I would think. But the passion of these pieces is ecumenical, universal. — "The Year in the Short Story," DLB Yearbook 1993

Shapiro is a master of the fictional form that breaks free from reality. He uses his acute imagination to move beyond the conventional testing of our senses while blending fantasy with actuality. Each of his stories is a gem of this difficult genre and each has a special appeal for Jewish readers since most of the people he writes about are unabashedly Jews who make liberal use of Yiddish phrases. ... All the stories portray singular characters whose experiences are adroitly capture in Shapiro's nimble and dexterous prose. He is a gifted writer with a flair for the fanciful and a simultaneous capacity to depict earthy truth. This exception combination of hard-headedness and dreaminess marks Gerald Shapiro as an able writer with a great faculty for splendid craftsmanship. — Jewish Journal

These nine stories, many previously published in America's noted literary quarterlies, display a wild imagination, a sense of humor, and a sense of character and place. The protagonists are invariably young Jewish men, lonely, and struggling for success who have some quirk in their lives. The themes range from a man who writes publicity releases for dolphin shows and goes on to write for zoos and other animal theme parks, to a lonely scholar writing a dissertation in England who gets distracted by another writer and spends years (in vain) studying him instead. The title story is about a young male shoe designer who takes in his obese, food-gorging uncle when the latter's wife has kicked him out. The stories are wry penetrating, intelligent. A new voice in American fiction. — Festa Newsletter

Gerald Shapiro's collection of stories, From Hunger, hovers somewhere between South American Magical Realism and Marc Chagall's flying fiddlers, but he never seems silly and he works in a tone and timbre altogether his own. If Isaac Bashevis Singer had been writing in English, and if he had been plucked up out of Manhattan and set down in Nebraska to blink his blue eyes in astonishment under those oppressively wide and matching pale-blue skies, his stories would very likely resemble these. Shapiro takes chances, not to show off but out of sheer desperation, to describe in accurate terms, the extravagances of existence. — David R Slavitt, judge for the Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook Award for a Distinguished Volume of Short Stories Published in 1993

Schlemiels, Schlemazels, Schmegeggies. Gerald Shapiro's collection of short stories, From Hunger, is so dense with has-beens and coulda-beens that disillusion hangs heavy as the smell of cabbage in a tenement. And yet the stories are uplifting, amusing and magical, with a hint that the world is ordered despite its seeming disarray and unfairness. ... Shapiro has many strengths as a writer, and his good and better become best when he's weaving tales of supernatural powers. ... Shapiro's stories are delightfully well written. The dialogue reflects a perfectly pitched ear and a strong command of urban Yinglish, and his odd juxtaposition of the supernatural with the familiar makes even the most outlandish stories resonate with meaning. To his credit and the reader's delight, Shapiro grounds even his most oddball stories and characters with just enough of the here and now to keep them engaging and appealing. — Hadassah, February 1994

The nine evocative, often magical stories that comprise Gerald Shapiro's debut collection are frequently so stunning that it is a special pleasure to be one of the first reviewers to share this find with the reading public. ... Mr. Shapiro's characters never stay out of trouble for long, but their misadventures provide many hilarious and touching moments, and we sense that their lives will somehow turn out all right. It might take a miracle, but the author of From Hunger can handle miracles. Mr. Shapiro is a writer with talent to burn and a sense of humor that imparts a special grace upon his charming but troubled Jewish. — Forward

He is a deft and clever writer, combining the biting wit of the early Philip Roth (who also gained significant recognition for his short fiction), the mysticism of Isaac Bashevis Singer and the absurdist irony of Kafka. ... Shapiro's stories are very much connected to each other; their unifying themes of hunger, confusion over what constitutes success, and brilliant insights derived from ordinary situations combine to make From Hunger as satisfying as a nine-course dinner or Passover seder. I read the entire collection in just two days, and savored each morsel. Like Uncle Phil, I was hungry for more when I finished the book. We look forward to future offerings from this gifted and sensitive writer. — Robert A Cohn, Jewish Light

Although most of the characters in Shapiro's stories are Jewish (or have Jewish names) and share attributes and experiences with the traditional schlemiel, they are otherwise far removed from the worlds of Sholem Aleichem, Singer, and even Malamud. These are third-generation Jewish Americans, fully assimilated in most respects, like Scheer in "A Tale of Urban Horror and Mayhem" and Ted Lustig in "Golders Green." Only Lenny Schrank, however reluctantly, is pulled back into the religion of his forefathers. And therein lies, I think, a significant commentary on the state — and perhaps the future — of Jewish-American literature today. — Studies in Short Fiction

Though the characters in each story are different, there is a thread which ties them together; that thread is "hunger." For Shapiro's creations the hunger resides in primal yearnings for belonging, for connecting, for inclusion. For the reader, "hunger" no longer applies. After thoroughly digesting Shapiro's sagacity and sensitivity, the appetite for good literature is slaked, and the only regret one has is that the dessert — the final story — comes too soon, all too soon! — Jewish Community News


Little Men
Copyright © 2004
by Gerald Shapiro
Ohio State UP
How to Buy

Ira Mittelman, the middle-aged hero of "A Box of Ashes," one of two novellas in Little Men, is wrestling with a dilemma: should he fulfill his late fatherís dying wish by taking the old man's ashes back to Missouri, to scatter them on the grounds of Camp HaHaTonka, the Boy Scout camp where Ira spent several summers as a boy? It's a long way to go just to dump some ashes, and if Ira makes this pilgrimage, his absence might jeopardize the fragile relationship he's managed to maintain with his ex-wife (theyíre still having sex every Friday night).
In "Spivak in Babylon," Little Men's other novella, it's 1982, and Leo Spivak, an ambitious 30-year-old copywriter at a large Chicago advertising agency, is about to get his big break: a chance to go to Hollywood to participate for the first time in the filming of a television commercial. A week in Hollywood, on the company's expense account! A room at the fabled Chateau Marmont (Garbo's old suite, in fact)! The only problem is the subject of the commercial itself: a new feminine hygiene spray to be marketed to pre-adolescent girls. Hovering over all the proceedings in "Spivak in Babylon" is the genial, befuddled presence of President Ronald Reagan, the Leader of the Free World, whose presence haunts Leo's dreams. — from the publisher

Welcome to the skewed, hilarious, slightly frightening world of Gerald Shapiro. Here everything seems to begin well — little bit of post-divorce sex, a seemly amount of on-the-job flirting. But then, before the characters know it, action tilts and shifts and they find themselves in wild, inventive, outrageous situations from which only a brilliant can extract them. The stories in Little Men are as rich as novels, as surprising as the best comedy, and as complex and satisfying as life itself. — Erin McGraw

Jazzy, quick ... Gerald Shapiro's collection will grab and hang on — beware: You will be a prisoner of the musty brown recliner, the beanbag, the breakfast nook, the backyard swing — gone for hours with Shapiro and his tales, spinning. Swerving. High velocity mayhem! — Rex Walton, Lincoln Journal Star

Ample comic gifts ... funny, accomplished ... Shapiro's own ear is so good, both for dialogue and for pungent exposition. ... Admirers of Bad Jews won't be able to stop themselves from reading Little Men. — San Francisco Chronicle


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