And it's not that Evanier has lacked for support from very visible publications and solid, quality publishers, even when they've been small. He was at one time a fiction editor at the Paris Review, an assistant editor at the late, lamented New Leader and a contributor to The New York Times Book Review. He's been a writer-in-residence at the MacDowell Colony, and one of his stories won the Aga Kahn Fiction Prize.
His novel, Red Love, was published by Scribners, and a collection of stories, The One-Star Jew, was put out by North Point Press, one of the most highly respected independent publishers of the 1970s and '80s.
Like other writers who've been condemned to "midlist" status — continual low sales coupled with solid reviews — he's struggled and looked to other means to make a killing through his writing. He's tried three times to write nonfiction works that might catch the attention of the public: Roman Candle: The Life of Bobby Darin; Making the Wiseguys Weep: The Jimmy Roseli Story; and Who's Sorry Now: The True Story of a Stand-Up Guy, which Evanier wrote with actor Joe Pantoliano of Sopranos' fame. His publishers were no less respectable in these cases: Rodale Press, Farrar Straus & Giroux and Dutton respectively. But none of these nonfiction gambles paid off.
Yet despite all this turmoil and struggle, Evanier has persevered. Now he's had to go to a very small, little known press — Rager Media, out of Ohio — to get The Great Kisser published. Rager should be commended for championing him in this way, but a writer of Evanier's stature should not have had to resort to such measures.
So, why isn't he better known? It's a question I've grappled with in trying to comprehend his career, especially considering the fate of any number of other writers. In Evanier's case, it might be the fact that he began his career brandishing all the correct leftist politics and then publicly reassessed them, which is never good for one's forward motion.
But, though that may have been a contributing factor to his anonymity, I think the reason has more to do with the writing itself, its determined, incessant, in-your-face honesty. If I had to choose, I would say that the writer Evanier most resembles, especially in choice of subject matter, is Philip Roth. And yet, there is a world of difference between the two of them that may hold the key to Evanier's position in the literary world.
Both writers deal with the American Jewish experience, examining closely the lives and permutations of the children of Jewish immigrants as they make their way — scholastically, professionally, sexually — in these United States beginning in the late years of the Depression and on into the 21st century.
Both writers also minutely diagnose the persistence of self-hatred among Jews, in particularly autobiographical ways, and how it cripples these urban Jewish types as they mature. Roth has made a meal of this subject, and most people think of him as an heir to Kafka in this regard — a notion he's done his best to nurture, in fictional and nonfictional pronouncements.
But the two writers part ways in how they approach this particular literary territory. No matter his great reach, fecundity and inventiveness, Roth never takes his eye off his audience, especially in his earlier works. He was praised right from the start for his satiric take on American Jewish manners and mores — read, avariciousness and social climbing — but, in essence, his satire was rather mild and easy to do. It seemed adventurous, I think, only because it was a brand-new element in American fiction.
When he moved on to sex in Portnoy's Complaint, that, too, seemed something new, and because it was framed via such explosive humor, it too appeared adventurous, if not cutting-edge. But sex is never that hard to do in fiction; doing it well, as Roth definitely did, is another story.
But Roth has always been primarily an entertainer (despite his turn to seriousness in his later works). The only time I thought he didn't give a damn about pleasing his readers was with Sabbath's Theater, which truly was savage, even barbarous in its effect. Again, its shock effects were done in the realm of sex and scatological language, which can always seem startling just by being there, right in front of us, in print. But Sabbath's Theater is doubtless a raw book and its "hero," Mickey Sabbath, a difficult, unrelenting character.
A Bumpy Ride
Evanier, though, never turns on the charm. He is too interested in examining his characters' wounds, and his search for truth — which can be particularly painful to read — is relentless. He has generally followed the same character throughout much of his fiction — he's called Bruce in both The Swinging Headhunter and The One-Star Jew, but is named Michael Goldberg in The Great Kisser — and these men share the same general biography: Born in New York City, he is the only child of a father who considers himself a failure and a mother who is the most monstrous Jewish mama caught on paper. The parents divorce early and then use Bruce-Michael as their ping-pong ball, playing him perfectly to extract the greatest possible guilt. His father cheers his son on in what the older man perceives of as his son's own unremitting failure, and his mother, if allowed, would devour the boy whole if given the chance. He is never safe with either one of them.
The reader follows Bruce-Michael from young manhood to middle age, and learns of his difficult relations with women (especially his long-suffering wife), his struggles to be a writer, his political aspirations and his efforts to comprehend his life through psychotherapy. Much of what transpires is grim indeed, but it's always leavened with Evanier's wild humor, which is not the raucous Roth type, but far more subtle, yet often just as funny. Evanier's main character is the perennial victim, something of a schlepper, but with a core of goodness, despite the wretched conditions of his life and the extent of his self-loathing.
It doesn't sound like the stuff of entertaining fiction, but you'd be surprised. You have to steel yourself because it's a bumpy ride. There's a lot of painful truth in these tales about the nature of Jewish life in America, and Evanier never lets his readers off the hook. They're made to suffer, like his characters. But there are saving graces — the humor, first of all, and the splendid insights into why people do what they do.
One passage from the story "The Man Who Gave Up Women" will have to suffice as an example of his style in The Great Kisser (which is somewhat different — less smooth, more discordant — than the prose in the earlier books):
"I really was a cute kid in those days … Wherever I was, my father would find me. I'd pick up the phone in the boarding house hallway, or he'd find me in the schoolyard where my friends would watch him bobbing up and down like a puppet, or he'd treat me to lunch at the Automat, where he always drew a crowd. He would pummel away, the same monologue, not hearing the replies I barely uttered, knowing there was no use. Sometimes I mouthed the words along with him as he spoke.
"Are you alone? Tsk, tsk, tsk. It's terrible to be alone. I'm alone like a dog. Don't worry, kid. You've still got your father in back of you. If you fail, so what? I'm here to buck you up. Buck up! Be like me! I know. I should have let go of you. I ruined you. I'm only kidding. But it's true. You're weak. You have your father to lean on. I know you try to write. I don't understand a word of it. I can't help it, Michael. I'm not educated. Don't blame me for the way I am. I didn't have the help of all the therapists I've given you. I'm not bright like you are, but you ought to make up for me."
If you manage to track down The Great Kisser, try and do a bit more digging and see if you can find other Evanier titles, like The One-Star Jew. The struggle — like those the author's characters endure — will be well worth the effort.