August 10: “Casualty” by Joseph Epstein

Way to be, Story366! Writing to you from the suburbs of Chicago, where me and the fam are visiting for one last trip before the school year/semester starts. I’m getting in six Cub games, we have all kinds of fun planned with family and friends, and above all else, we’ll be eating lots of great food. In-between, Karen and I are furiously pecking away at blog posts and syllabi, while in the background, we’re catching as much of the Olympics as we can.

You may or many not remember this, but when these summer Olympics were awarded to Rio back in 2009, Chicago was one of the other finalists (along with Madrid and Tokyo). Barack Obama, new to the presidency, backed the bid, sending Michelle as the U.S. rep to the meetings, and the city had held the Gay Games that summer to demonstrate the ability to coordinate that type of event. Chicago was the first city eliminated when it came time to choose.In the end, a lot of people pointed to the horrendous murder rate and gun violence in the city—something that continues to escalate to this day—as the reason Chicago was not selected. When it was time to put up a bid for the 2020 edition, Chicago withheld, San Francisco putting forth the (failed) U.S. entry.

A lot of people I know in Chicago, if not most of them, couldn’t be more pleased that the Olympics didn’t make their way to Chicago. They refer to how horrible the Games left Athens’ and Greece’s economy, how many of these venues in many cities, after two weeks of use, crumble into ruin after costing taxpayers millions of dollars. They speak of the target that would be on Chicago’s back, how Olympics bring a ridiculously elevated risk of terrorism. Others just refer to the traffic, how horribly difficult it would be for regular people to get to their regular jobs. And then, of course, the gun violence, how we wouldn’t really want random high jump fans from the Netherlands shot and killed while walking from their hotel to their Uber, because that’s how the murder rate issue would translate, should the Games come to our city, random shootings and such in broad daylight, in all parts of the city.

I see all of these angles, but I deny them, too. I wanted the Games to come to Chicago. I love the Olympics. For two weekends every four years, I watch the hell out of the Olympics. Four years ago, we moved from Ohio to Missouri right in the middle of the Games, spending the start of them in a hotel while cleaning our empty house—everything shipped off in PODS—and offices, then moved into our temporary apartment in Springfield while catching the last few events and closing ceremonies. I get into things like swimming and gymnastics and track & field—which everyone does—but also get hypnotized by events like shooting and ping pong. Every four years, I can watch these things with gusto. Why? I’m a homer. I love rooting for the U.S., and Poland, and love when competitions involve countries. I even follow the World Cup—just the results, not actually watching the soccer—because I like it when countries compete as countries, for national pride. It helps that the U.S. dominates in the Games, even to a certain degree in the Winter Games. Plus, I find the odd sports a nice diversion from the big four of baseball, football, basketball, and hockey.

I also am a homer from the angle of wanting Chicago to be in the world spotlight. I’ve told non-Chicagoans that Chicago is the greatest city in the world (especially in the summer), and the city receiving the Olympics would help prove that. We could cock our shoulders and puff up our chests, the world spotlight on our city, and despite all the complaints and worries, I think Chicago would have knocked it out of the park. On top of that, I’m pretty sure that my job as a vendor would somehow gain me access to the games, as they’d need people—like crazy—to sell things at all the venues, inside and out, and my union would certainly score us some action. Right now, had Chicago been given these Olympics, not only would the city be abuzz with excitement and prestige, I may have made some serious coin while getting to view synchronized diving, run-walk marathons, and team swim-archery, all for free. If only.

Fittingly, on my return to Chicago and me writing about the Chicago non-Olympics, I read from Joseph Epstein’s The Love Song of A. Jerome Minkoff, out from Mariner Books, for my post today. All of the stories are set in and around Chicago, keying in on Jews in contemporary situations. Despite having written over twenty books of fiction and non-fiction, I’ve not read any Epstein before—and he’s from Chicago!—so I’m certainly glad I came across his book.

I read the first two stories from the collection. The title story is about an aging widowed doctor who finds love with another widow, a very wealthy woman from LA, both of them losing their spouses to ALS. It’s a good story, a good lead for the book, but I’m breaking trend today by focusing on the next story, “Casualty,” about a University of Illinois English professor and his life in the UIUC English department. Since I spent my undergrad years in that department and hold a degree from it, I found it fascinating to read about these professors, so here we go, “Casualty.”

“Casualty” is about Mel, a Yale grad who taught for a while at Yale, but after six years, is let go, just short of tenure. He scores the job at the U of I, which he’s happy to have, a new family in tow, the last shot as a professor, though it’s not a bad one, as U of I has a good rep for English (even more so in the story than in real life, perhaps). Once he gets the job, Mel gives us a few pages of faculty rundown, listing the different professors in the department, their specialties, and some little fact about them, Mel’s opinion of them and how they interact. This was fun for me, because I was trying to identify real professors I had during my stary. Mel mentions a world-famous Melville scholar, and sure enough, I had a world-famous Melville scholar for 200-level 19th Century lit course. Is it him? Maybe, maybe not. But I got a sense that Epstein knew this department, or maybe he’s describing any land-grant English department, just placing it in Champaign because it’s near Chicago and that’s where these stories take place. I was sad to see no creative writers mentioned—I was praying for a Jean Thompson or Mike Madonick facsimile—but maybe this is set in a time before actual creative writers were a thing in departments. In any case, I at least liked the landmark-naming, streets and buildings and businesses about town, which were real, something I liked in the title story as well, all the Chicago references to make the story genuine.

The plot of “Casualty” pits Mel against this larger-than-life Irish lit scholar, O’Rourke, who introduces himself to Mel by insulting his Jewish heritage and scholarshiop. Mel writes off O’Rourke after that first encounter, for years, but the two are colleagues for decades, so they run into each other, and eventually, become semi-friends. The anti-Semitism is always the elephant in the room, however, and rears its head again, specifically when O’Rourke is drunk; sadly, that’s pretty often. Mel has to reckon this conflict, as he grows fond of O’Rourke in some ways, but tolerates him in others. The story is the story of this complicated relationship, how Mel deals with O’Rourke, and eventually, how they’re the last of their generation left in the department, bonding them together in ways that only time can.

That’s perhaps on oversimplification of “Casualty,” but I don’t want to reveal too much more. The glory of the story, of Epstein’s writing, is getting to know the characters, their everyday lives, not necessarily any surprising plots or out-of-the-ordinary predicaments. I’ve only read two of Epstein’s stories, but admire them for how easy they are to slip into, to feel for the protagonists, to like them. That’s a rare, lost skill in writing, but Epstein seems to do it effortlessly.

Joseph Epstein is the author of a lot of books and it seems like he’s best known for his nonfiction, both memoir and biography. The Love Song of A. Jerome Minkoff is his third story collection, a fourth out just this year. I admire his stories, traditionally told characters sketches about people living their lives, trying to fit in relationships, fit in life. Lots of fun for a homer like me, too. I could be hawking sunscreen at Oak Street Beach right now, catching some volleyball, but Epstein made that longing go away just a bit with his Chicago tales.