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Seize the Pen

In his essays on the writing life, Michael Greenberg emerges as figure out of Bellow.

For years, I have been reading Michael Greenberg's remarkable column in the Times Literary Supplement and wondering what the English make of it. The New York Jewish quality of Greenberg's take on the writer's life, under the rubric "Freelance," is emphasized by the way he takes turns writing the column with an English poet, Hugo Williams, who is a writer of a wholly different species. Williams is deeply ensconced in the world of poetry-writing programs, residencies, and workshops--the whole infrastructure of institutionalized creativity, which seems no less formidable in the United Kingdom than in the United States. When Williams is not writing about giving a reading or teaching a class, he is often discussing his wife's chateau in France, or his father, a British theater and film star from the 1950s.

If Williams comes out of a David Lodge novel, however, Greenberg undoubtedly belongs in a book by Saul Bellow. "As I saw it, the real sacrifice was on the part of those who had to toe the line and forswear a free-style existence," Greenberg writes of his adolescent self, cleverly alluding both to the title of his column and to that famous freelance, Augie March: "'First to knock, first admitted,' in Saul Bellow's words. ‘Sometimes an innocent knock, sometimes a not so innocent.'" Following this creed, Greenberg never went to college, choosing instead to run away from home as a teenager, then prowl New York and the world in search of the writer's elixir, experience. Yet in Beg, Borrow, Steal: A Writer's Life--the terrific new collection of Greenberg's "Freelance" columns, just published by Other Press--he is mainly concerned to show the downside of experience. The book is a chronicle, not of failure exactly, but of constant struggle--against the slipperiness of the writer's vocation, against the psychological burdens of family and Jewishness, but most straightforwardly, as the title suggests, the struggle just to earn a living.

In other words, Greenberg is engaged with the very subjects that made the first generation of American Jewish writers so elementally vigorous. That is why this slender book makes such a strong impression: it is as though Bellow or Alfred Kazin were transported to post-millennial New York, bringing their toughness and romanticism to bear on our softer and more familiar world. Greenberg himself hints at this quality of his writing in a typically self-deprecatory piece about his early struggles to publish a novel. In the early 1980s, Greenberg writes, he sent his manuscript to the influential editor Ted Solotaroff, who returned it with a note: "This manuscript represents everything I hate in fiction." Greenberg was devastated, of course; but years later, when he read Solotaroff's memoir Truth Comes in Blows, he realized that his novel must have struck all too close to home. "With its complicated, immigrant-minded fathers and their sons," Greenberg now sees, "my novel must have seemed old hat to him, a story of Jewish marginality that, in America at least, was passé."

In a certain sense, the style of Jewish marginality that Greenberg writes about Beg, Borrow, Steal does seem passé, or at least to belong to the past, if only for socioeconomic reasons. We are accustomed to reading about Jewish peddlers on the Lower East Side in the 1890s, and their struggling intellectual sons in the 1930s. Follow that lineage down to the present, and the great-grandson who becomes a writer is likely to have an MFA from Iowa and a tenured teaching job; if he writes about Jewishness, it will be in a nostalgic, quasi-magical-realist style.

In Beg, Borrow, Steal, however, the familiar timeline of assimilation and upward mobility has been discarded. Instead of his grandfather, we find Greenberg himself working as a peddler (the time appears to be the early 1970s), selling knockoff cosmetics on Fordham Road in the Bronx. Greenberg befriends a Chilean food-vendor named Lucho, who teaches him the tricks of the trade--above all, which security guard to bribe to avoid being rousted. But this gesture of friendship, like most such gestures in Greenberg's world, turns out to have been a con. The day before Easter, when Greenberg has done great business and is carrying a lot of cash, Lucho doesn't show up to work; instead, three teenagers come and rob him, presumably on his friend's instructions.

The moral is one Bellow would have approved: the life of the mind is okay for idealists, but real life is dog-eat-dog. This was also the creed of Greenberg's own father: "To get by in my father's world, you had to be tough, like he was. He didn't have colleagues, only enemies. Every dollar, he taught us, had to be pried away from men who would just as soon see us starve." No wonder Greenberg's book is full of crooks and operators--from Henry, the young coffee-shop barista who expects Greenberg to look on approvingly as he robs the till, to Hugh, a junkie who feeds Greenberg's curiosity with stories about thieving techniques before burglarizing his apartment. There is something of Rinaldo Cantabile, the gangster pal of Charlie Citrine in Humboldt's Gift, in such figures, and in Greenberg's suspicious-but-amused relationships with them.

The central irony of Greenberg's memoir--for that is what Beg, Borrow, Steal amounts to--is that it was his literary idealism, in rebellion against his brutal father, that landed Greenberg in such brutal and unideal places. Greenberg's war with his father begins, appropriately, in the book's very first sentence: "My old man was like Zeus's father Cronos: he couldn't bear the idea that any of his children might surpass him." The literary son fighting the businessman father is the oldest of modern Jewish tropes, going back to Kafka and Freud, but we seldom see it in such vigor in late 20th-century America. Greenberg's fight was literal: he writes of the moment his father "took a wild swing at me. I dodged it easily, hearing the crush of bone as his fist hit the wall. I fled the apartment, and when I returned, three days later, his hand was in a cast."

No wonder Greenberg is so conflicted about the burdens of family, and of Jewishness. In one of the book's most charged sections, he writes about circumcision: "In ancient times, it fell to the father to do the job on his son himself, driving home the idea that masculinity belonged to God or to the priests who spoke for him. For Freud, this was proof of the violence of the father who crashes in on the paradise of mother and child." Greenberg's reluctance to inflict such "violence" on his son meant that he went uncircumcised, while ironically, "his Cuban and black crib mates were circumcised as a matter of course." When, shortly afterward, the doctor informed Greenberg that the boy should be circumcised to treat a rare condition--"a one-in-a-million occurrence"--it is like a cosmic reminder that Jewishness cannot be ducked.

Greenberg's refusal to join the family scrap-metal business was another kind of rebellion, and a more successful one, as we see from the fates of his brothers who fell in line: "For thirty years they tormented each other with accumulated rancor." Yet Greenberg's literary career has been anything but idyllic: he writes about his experiences ghost-writing for minor celebrities, writing narration for a golf documentary (though he doesn't know how to play golf), and punching up Hollywood scripts. At a low moment, he compares himself to Wilky in Bellow's Seize the Day, "who has persisted in his quest to be an actor just long enough to make himself unfit for the more lucrative professions." But this book, with its intrepidity, humor, and dark insight, offers its own, irrefutable justification for the "writer's life."

Adam Kirsch is a senior editor at The New Republic. This piece originally appeared in Tablet Magazine.

© 2009, Tablet Magazine