Robert Greenfield is giving up the title.
Nu? What kind of mishegoss is this from an unknown 36-year-old whose first three books flopped like a dead cod? Especially now that his new novel, "Temple," has suddenly boosted him to the apex of ethnic admiration, the front page of The New York Times Book Review calls him the reincarnation of Philip Roth, and Scott "Endless Love" Spencer says he "has made the American-Jewish novel new again."
There's only one problem, says Greenfield--a tanned and grinning presence with a lanky slouch, new-mown beard and outsized aviators: "I don't really consider myself a Jewish-American writer. They told me not to say this" because he won a National Jewish Book Award last month. "But the fact is they need to hang you on a convenient hook." And convenient hooks are what the Brooklyn-born Greenfield, who escaped to Big Sur by way of London, has spent his life trying to avoid.
A hybrid for sure. Look at him here in languid repose at the Summit offices above the Avenue of the Americas: There's little Sheepshead Bay left in the way he answers compliments with a soft and mannerly "Thank you" like an apprentice clerk at Tiffany's; even less in the hothouse fantasia of California colors--a lavender sweater over fuchsia shirt and maroon tie. And listen to the suicidal apostasy: "The stuff 'Temple' has been compared to--Malamud and Roth--well, it's very flattering but they have a different kind of distance from the material than I do." Moreover, they're "not my favorite writers, and I feel myself to be in a different tradition."
Yes and no. Paulie Bindel, his protagonist, at first seems a classic comic shlimazl--the kind of pathetic-inept bad-luck loser familiar to millions from Bruce Jay Friedman to "Goodbye, Columbus," "The Graduate" to "Annie Hall." But he's much closer to the Anglo subspecies of hapless and victimized wimps made famous by Evelyn Waugh and later Kingsley Amis and J.P. Donleavy.
Paulie is a grad-school dropout and pop-ditty buff with a restless libido, nil social skills and a bad case of hostile mind-cramps, hanging around Cambridge, Mass., and wondering what to make of his increasingly neurotic life. ("A Jewish Holden Caulfield," says Hadassah, "asthmatic and introverted, self-deprecating and self-aggrandizing.") Uneasy in the WASPish ambiance and crazed by the compulsive promiscuity of his shiksa lover Lesley and her repertory of not-quite-former boyfriends, Paulie flees to his family and his native Brooklyn, looking first for succor and then for self.
"He's living right on the edge," Greenfield says, trying to find an identity between the poles of symbolic antitheses: On one side, the old shul tie represented by his grandfather, Mendel, a concentration-camp survivor and devout pillar of the temple; on the other the goyish mayhem of Harlem's Apollo Theater and the steamy carnal funk of James Brown. As Paulie ricochets between the blood-demands of Jewish heritage and the lure of gentile hedonism, the omnivorous Lesley is paired against chaste and princessy Steffi Weiss, rock 'n' roll against the cantor's voice. And since Paulie is out of step with everything, dance is the central metaphor: "Once again I have been judged and found wanting. I am now and forevermore the boy who cannot do the Shing-a-ling, the Boog-a-loo, or the Funky Broadway." Before the book is over and the last prat has fallen, he will achieve a tentative synthesis.
Just the sort of thing for The New York Times to call a "deft and moving fiction about what it was like to be young, Jewish and alienated in modern America." But "it's not a traditional Jewish novel," Greenfield insists, the rough Brooklyn consonants all but buffed out of his voice. "There's no guilt, and it doesn't have self-hatred. And my characters don't necessarily define themselves as Jews--they're trying to be Americans."
We watch them try as the narrative alternates between Paulie's first-person and a subtly varied third-person to enter the minds of his father the broken-spirited postman, his mother the regular at Toni's Beauty Salon, Rabbi Hakveldt the cowardly materialist and many more. "I don't really like my personality to be in the writing," Greenfield says, and the floating point-of-view becomes a gesture of authorial compassion. "You'd better like all your characters by the end of the book, or you've made a mistake."
Not that it inhibits his covert parody of the genre ("You've kinda seen this scene before, but here it is upside down") that gives "Temple" all of the chicken soup but none of the shmaltz. But the ultimate aim is earnest. "It's about rites of manhood. Wait!" A pause for a little liberal diction-shuffle. "Call that that rites of adulthood." And if Paulie does very little--and most of it wrong--still, "rejection of certain values is really positive if it leads you into the creation of a new universe."
He could be describing himself. Growing up in Brooklyn ("I don't want to talk about my parents"), he became a "savagely intense reader," consuming Fitzgerald and Hemingway by 13 and determined to be a writer after his first piece in the sixth-grade paper. By his teens, bar mitzvahed and orthodox, fearing dancing as "the great social freeze," he was already developing a bizarre sense of cultural exile. It began with music ("from the radio--I love it because you dream") and grew with a family visit to California. Thereafter, "I wanted to be a surfer. I don't know why," except that he was fixated on the "pure Beach Boys, pre-drug California--woodies, KFWB Los Angeles, Farmer John, knobbies, the whole thing."
He entered Brooklyn College at 16, took an MA from the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism ("just another way of becoming a writer") and was working on a PhD in American studies when the draft board went after him in 1969. He dropped out, joined the reserves and took a job at the Passaic Herald News, working 6 p.m. to 3 a.m. on the sports desk. He promptly found it "too defeating" and quit, already something of a shlimazl himself and confirmed in the life-quest pattern he sums up as "This ain't it. This ain't it." As a free-lance writer, "I put a lot of magazines out of business." Huh? "Well, if I wrote for 'em, in a year they were out of business," he says, citing Cheetah, Eye and New York Scenes. Finally, "I was just completely frustrated."
Meanwhile, deeper fault lines had formed in his solid ethnic and regional identity: "There's a certain level where you never get out, like Hasidic Jews. And I was close to that line where there is no escape. But I wanted to escape. I felt oppressed." By his parents? "No, they were real supportive." By his religion? "No, 'cause I never rejected wholly my Jewishness. I quit going to synagogue every Saturday, but I've kept Yom Kippur all my life." Well, what then? "I guess I just felt defeated by the city." Never mind. Birds gotta swim, fish gotta fly. And Greenfield had to "go to Europe and just travel." Fortunately, "a lady from Rolling Stone had liked a piece I'd done on Richard Farina," and by 1971 he found himself employed in the magazine's London bureau covering the Rollings Stones' tour of England.
How did the bookish Brooklynite with no pop-monde experience get access to the recondite rockers? As usual, by accident. "With that kind of people, your credentials are always personal, and they didn't know who I was. I was just being real silent and trying not to make my presence known.
"But after one of the concerts, I was sitting between Charlie Watts and somebody else. Charlie was a great jazz fan, and they were discussing who in fact had played the trumpet solo on 'We Meet and the Angels Sing.' " Surely one of most obscure facts in musical history. "But it happened to be one of my mother's favorite songs. So I said, 'Ziggy Elman.' " Greenfield was in. (In the novel, Paulie gains the trust of a rock star by naming the writer of an old Temptations tune.) He got a good inside story. "I never took notes at the time--it intimidates people. So I had to go to the bathroom a lot. No one will be granted that kind of access again."
So in 1972, when the Stones were set to tour the United States, Greenfield assumed it would be his story. Publisher Jann Wenner wanted someone else, but "the Stones office said, 'Bob Greenfield is the only one acceptable to us.' " Wenner was stuck, and "so I traveled as a member of the party." But halfway through the tour, Wenner assigned Truman Capote to the story. Greenfield was out, even though he had already filed. "He cut my piece to ribbons and ran all pictures, and I resigned. I was kinda crushed." But he got a book offer from "a publishing house I put out of business" (Saturday Review Press), and "S.T.P.: A Journey Through America with the Rolling Stones" appeared the next year. It promptly sank without a ripple. "In terms of the rock book market," he says in sotto deadpan, "it was somewhat premature."
By then he was living in Carmel with his wife, Donna, an early-morning FM disc jockey ("the first person in America to play New Wave") and working on his second book, "The Spiritual Supermarket," about religious cult leaders. It, too, was a modest catastrophe. "I begged the publisher not to put a guru and a shopping cart on the cover. And the cover was a guru in a shopping cart--in bright green!" Worse yet, Adam Smith's "Powers of Mind" came out at the same time, cornering the swami market. "That was the beginning and the end of 'The Spiritual Supermarket.' " Shlimazl syndrome again.
To make money, "I started to do screenplays." Just sending them in on speculation, over the transom? "Well, my whole life is on spec." Amazingly, he sold one, joined the Screenwriters Guild, and sold more. "One of them almost got made." ("Across the River," about a "New Jersey guy who comes back from the Navy and tries to re-form his old band.") He found Hollywood "real exciting--like the garment business," had lunch with Sherry Lansing, and "for two years, I made what a postal clerk makes, say $25,000 a year." So he tried a first novel, "Haymon's Crowd," about five friends from the streets of New York and what becomes of their lives. After two long years of work, it finally came out in 1978--to be met with the New York newspaper strike. Again, the pratfall. No reviews, no sales. "I guess you expect the world to stop and say, 'Hey!' But you don't expect nothing to happen. That's really a shock."
But even if something had happened, he doubts that it would have repaid his efforts. Greenfield is a veteran of the slim four-figure advance; by paying so little, he says, publishers "are demanding that writers become academics," and making middle-class life virtually impossible "for anybody but the so-called brand-name writers. I wish we had a writers' union."
Fortunately, there were more screenplays to support the three years he spent on "Temple," conjuring up the sullen brick and predatory spunk of urban Brooklyn from his seaside idyll a nation away. An act of creative restoration: "My Brooklyn doesn't exist anymore. A lot of the specialness has been rubbed away," just as his Beach Boys dream eroded when "America became more like California and California became more like America." Both strains of his hybrid psyche now defunct, leaving Greenfield . . . where?
Why, on the cover of The New York Times Book Review. And if he seems appallingly nonplussed, well, what are a few ounces of newsprint compared to the soul-spraining labor of building one's own identity over 20 years of migratory perplexity and comic accident?
"There is some advantage to having written books that just appear and disappear," Greenfield says, his mild voice swelling with certitude. "You learn that really you don't exist--as a name, as an income," that "a writer lives in his own mind," making himself up as he goes along. Which suits him fine. "I don't want to be famous. I've always wanted to be left alone." After all, "You can't watch if you're being watched."