In the 1940s and ’50s, there was a vibrant culture of Jewish intellectuals writing, arguing, competing for limited attention spans and print space. With McCarthyism, the inevitability of illness and death, and the lure of Hollywood money, this culture died out. Now a struggling survivor, a veteran of those times, is brought to life in Starting Out in the Evening.
Leonard Schiller is old, in failing health, and mostly alone. His wife died many years before, and he lives on in the apartment they shared, recollecting his jealousies and triumphs, nursing his heart, and writing one final book that will probably never be read. He wheedles just enough reviewing jobs to keep himself fed and clothed, but his reputation has vanished along with his peers and the now out-of-print books that brought him some notice in his heyday.
His daughter Ariel is in her forties, and has decided she wants to have a child before it’s ‘too late’. She is uncertain about the man she lives with (who doesn’t want children), and finds herself catching up with a former lover who may father her child but may not be relationship material. Ariel is a self-centered aerobics teacher who has a hard enough time organizing her classes, let alone preparing for a baby, and Leonard despairs (to himself) of her pointless life.
Then 24-year old graduate student Heather Wolfe turns up on Schiller’s doorstep. She believes her recent discovery of his books is a profound moment in her life, and wants to bring her treasure to the world through her own planned thesis. She visits Leonard repeatedly, bringing energy, change, and intellectual vigor back into his life. She takes him to literary parties, introduces him to a new generation of editors, and champions his books. Her sincere admiration for Leonard is like a drug to the old man, and for a time he is back in the thick of the criticism, polemics, and backbiting that brought him fulfillment in his younger days. He also begins entertaining images of his cherished stories back in print, discussed in literature classes, and available to readers everywhere. But he also begins to see a price on that engagement, one he’s not sure he wants to pay.
Morton does an incredible job of creating these characters as individuals. They feel real enough to be your crotchety old neighbor, your ditzy aerobics teacher, or that dynamic student who drove you crazy in school. But he also makes them sympathetic, delving into the thoughts and emotions that drive them. Like Isaac Bashevis Singer’s short stories about those times and people, it is intimate, loving, and unsparing. This is fiction that embodies the purpose of fiction – showing us characters who reveal our selves through a different lens.
My book groups read Starting Out in the Evening several years ago, and it still occasionally comes up in our discussions. I handsell our Gab Bag version to local book groups, and have had a lot of positive feedback about this quiet piece. A 2007 film starring Frank Langella was released on the art house circuit, and from all accounts the translation to screen kept the book’s approach intact. I’m on hold for the DVD (thanks, Cheryl), but hope to take time to reread this marvelous book.