Tumultuous Tales Of Loathing And Wit

The Varieties of Romantic Experience
The Varieties of Romance
By Robert Cohen
Paperback, 224 pages
Vintage
List Price $12
Read An Excerpt

Every writer has a collection of influences — the powerful voices that she lays her tracing paper over, hoping to capture some of their inflections. Sometimes, those voices belong to teachers, and the one that rings most loudly in my ears belongs to Robert Cohen.

In "Influence," the final short story in his 2002 collection The Varieties of Romantic Experience, a young novelist says of his mentor, "I'm not the only one of his students who'd been secretly infatuated with the man, who'd learned to see and inhabit the world Elgin's way, with Elgin's loathing and wit, his fierce, arrhythmic music."

As an undergrad at Middlebury, I was one of the many students who hung on Cohen's every word in class, but I suspect I was the only one to hunt down every word he'd written — ordering back issues of Story, Glimmer Train and The New England Review, smuggling them hungrily into my dorm room like the desserts I'd sneak from the dining hall.

I read his stories again and again, then swallowed them whole when, to my delight, they were released in book form, and later I taught them to my own students. But I hadn't gone back to them in a few years, and recently I picked up the book, wondering if perhaps, now that I was older and the sheen of professor-worship wasn't so glaring, the stories might have lost some of their luster.

Nope. If anything, they're brighter than ever.

The title of the collection is a nod to William James, who is quoted in the title story: "There are persons whose existence is little more than a series of zigzags ... one long drama of repentance and of effort to repair misdemeanors and mistakes." Cohen's characters are, of course, these persons, navigating the zigzags with heartbreaking exertion.

Eleanor Henderson teaches fiction writing at Ithaca College. She is the author of Ten Thousand Saints.

hide captionEleanor Henderson teaches fiction writing at Ithaca College. She is the author of Ten Thousand Saints.

Ecco

They are a young couple trying to get pregnant, a family saddled with the bittersweet birth of a sister with Down syndrome, and a failed business owner stumbling through the twilight of his life at a casino. They are characters for whom an accidental encounter with a stranger can produce a blazing halo of insight, the kind of clarity that makes you snort out loud and shiver in recognition.

But it's Cohen's voice that brings such humor and emotional incisiveness to these characters. Often compared to Bellow and Roth, his prose reminds me more of Chabon's, but perhaps more avuncular, more, yes, professorly, shaping the male Jewish consciousness — in stories with titles such as "The Bachelor Party" — with muscle and irony and nostalgia but also a lacy, ladylike intricacy. His sentences are coarse, crunchy, glutinous, the kind that leave you with seeds stuck in your teeth.

Cohen is a brilliant novelist as well, but if you're new to his work, start with these stories. Read them for their deft characterizations, for their hilarious dialogue of resistance, for both their stylistic ingenuity and their old-fashioned comforts, for their insistence that "we are all in this together, ladies and gentlemen, in a way that would be horrible were it not so comic."

When I read these stories again, I realized with equal parts pride and shame just how powerfully the rhythm of Cohen's voice has shaped mine. You, too, will be happy to be hijacked by the tide of his voice, to ride the fierce, arrhythmic zigzags with him.

You Must Read This is produced and edited by Ellen Silva with production assistance from Rose Friedman and Lacey Mason.

Excerpt: 'The Varieties Of Romantic Experience'

The Varieties of Romance
The Varieties of Romance
By Robert Cohen
Paperback, 224 pages
Vintage
List Price $12

The Next Big Thing

If it had been up to Howard, he'd have been there the first day it opened. That was how he saw it: arriving at dawn, glass doors flying open with a sigh, he and Bella strolling arm in arm across the virgin carpet, entering like lords. It would not exactly be a novelty—he'd been down to Atlantic City six or seven times over the years—but possibly it would feel like one. The senses were gullible that way. They received and received and received, and still at the end of the day there was this indiscriminate hunger for more.

But it hadn't been up to him, of course. There was a long list of things that weren't up to Howard Udovin at this point. He was sixty-six years old and his business had failed. His stocks were precarious, his best friends were dead, his wife refused to take him seriously, and now there were two balloons in his chest just to keep his heart from collapsing. That was how things were. The balloons he was aware of all the time, two thin, colorless membranes upon which the unruly weight of his life depended. Children's toys. And yet to accommodate their presence required some very adult adjustments.

For instance, he'd had to liquidate the inventory. That was an adjustment. He'd had to give up smoking. More adjustment. Tennis. Coffee, scotch, red meat, peanuts, ice cream, shellfish — okay, a lot of adjustment. Even sex, which thanks to the blood thinners he'd had to give up, at least for a while, even that.

Bad luck, yes. A difficult situation to be sure. But where realities were concerned one learned to compromise. What was reality anyway? A leash around your neck that tightened as you got older. As for the sex, he only missed it sometimes. In bed now he just closed his eyes and lay there like a baby. Nothing was asked of him, nothing expected. That was the upside of his condition: how little was expected of him, even by himself.

And now, after that incident on the Triborough last March, he'd been relieved of his driver's license too, so if he wanted to go anywhere he had to persuade Bella to take him. This meant waiting until she was in the right mood, which it so happened was practically never. For a woman as moody as Bella, you'd think that every so often the law of averages would prevail and one of her moods would swing into harmony with one of yours. But no. Bella's moods remained obdurate; they swung on their own private hinge.

"Don't pester me," she'd said, when he approached her with his proposition. She was out in the backyard, laying down bricks end-to-end, creating an enclosure for the herb garden. There was no reason to enclose the herb garden that Howard was aware of, but it was in Bella's nature to build walls, to make fine delineations. "I'm not interested."

"Arthur Pearle went up there last week. He says the place is first rate. The next big thing, he says."

"Then go with him."

"I don't want to go with Arthur. He makes those crummy puns all the time, and he'll bore me to death about the grandkids. I want to go with you, Bella."

"Long drives make me sleepy."

"So nap on the ferry," he said.

"I nap in the daytime, I can't sleep at night."

"So you won't nap," Howard said. "You'll read. You'll do a crossword. You'll look out at the Sound and tell me your dreams."

"Ha!" she said. "My dreams!"

"Fine. I was just talking. Do what you want.

"You want my dreams?" Bella put down her brick and looked at him.

"I was just talking, Bella." Suddenly the last thing he wanted was to go anywhere with this woman. How had they even traveled this far?

"In my dreams my mother comes out of the sky, sits on the edge of the bed, and sings to me in Russian. She sings, wake up you stupid girl, wake up. But I don't."

"Bella," he said, "I was just talking."

"Sometimes it's not my mother. Sometimes it's Aunt Ida who comes, also singing, in a black fur coat. Ida the widow: she was seventeen, practically a pauper. Where did she get such a coat?"

"Maybe she hit big at the casino, Bella. Why not try it yourself?"

Bella gave an aristocratic sniff by which to indicate deep thought. She took off one work glove and considered the back of her hand for a moment, where the skin was bunched and dry from exposure, like old coral. "I don't like to leave the garden right now," she said finally. "The weather's changeable. You turn your back and next thing it's gone."

"One day, Bella."

"Things happen in less time than that."

"Things? What things? What are you talking about? Do you even know, or are you just saying whatever comes into your head to make me mad?"

"Pish tosh," Bella said. "You were always an angry person, Mickey says. Now you're more so. That's it in a nutshell."

"You're the nutshell, Bella."

Mickey the big shot. Twenty years ago he took a survey course at Brooklyn College, and ever since he's Doctor Freud. But you had to tread carefully around the subject of Mickey. He was Bella's one and only, and if he hadn't moved to California she'd still be cutting up his chicken for him every night. Also, as Bella would be quick to remind him, Howard had no children himself. The reasons for this were not entirely clear. His first wife, Fay, had wanted a family, but he was just starting out then, long hours, weekends, eating lunch at his desk so as not to miss any calls, all the time conscious over his shoulder of the cold clear eye of the bank. He'd said, wait. Give me a chance to get established; let me make a name. In truth his feelings on the subject had been vague, half-formed; it was possible, if challenged, they'd have taken a different shape. But Fay did not challenge. Poor amiable Fay, who could barely heat up a pot of coffee without encouragement, never challenged.

They waited all right. They waited until she was dead in the ground.

Anyway what difference did it make? At their age, even children weren't children anymore. They were grown-up and gone, with complications of their own. Take Mickey. Thirty-eight years old and already bald on top, already seeing doctors for mysterious ailments, already divorced. No, children didn't solve anything. Children were just a passing phase, a diversion. They were children for a while and then they turned into something else. Meanwhile you were still just you.

"Look around, old woman," he said. "We have money and time and a big car from Detroit. We're free."

Bella waved her wrist. "You don't know the meaning."

"Arthur Pearle knows. He's been to Cancun, Hawaii, Santa Fe. He says this place out in the woods tops them all. State of the art facility. There's even a museum on the premises.

"Museum?" Bella, who in her capacious and neatly ordered wallet carried membership cards for the Whitney, the Met, the Modern, the Guggenheim, the Jewish, and the International Center for Photography, perked up at this. "What kind?"

"Historical," Howard said authoritatively, though in truth he could not recall what kind of museum Arthur had said it was. "You know, Indian stuff. Native peoples, Bella. A rich and valuable heritage. It's time we stop thinking like immigrants and learn the history of the land."

"Learn your own," she said. "That would be plenty of history right there."

It wasn't going to happen, he realized that, but he could not keep himself from shouting, "I'm not talking about me, damn you. I'm talking about this country. I'm talking about opportunity, free enterprise. I'm talking about open space, Bella. About loopholes." She blinked at him coolly as if she had never heard this word before, as if he were making it up. It was a common and terrifically unfair theme of their marriage that he was nor as bright as she was, and thus less entitled for some reason to speak his mind. "Don't you see?" he persisted. "Every empty space is an opportunity. The Indians, they've figured this out. You get beat up and shoved aside for hundreds of years, you learn how to interpret the laws. Work the margins. Like us."

That blink again.

"They say the Indians might be the missing tribe. You know, the one that got lost in the Bible. Arthur read a theory in Book-of-the-Month."

"What book, I'd like to know. The Moron's Almanac? The Stupid Person's Guide to Life?"

"The point is," Howard kept his voice steady, "you've got to work around the limits sometimes. Take charge, change your luck. Otherwise you're just treading water.

"Dummy," she said. "My luck is right here. Why should I run off to Connecticut? I'm happy right here."

She was, too. Bella was happy right here with her bricks and short spade, her crocuses and lilies, her tarragon, chives, rhubarb, and carrots. There was no reason he could think of why she should run off to Connecticut, other than the dreary but unavoidable fact that he could not get there without her. It was a classic conflict of interest. Marriage, in his experience, was often a conflict of interest. Arthur Pearle was a widower; he could go where he wanted. Arthur had no conflict anymore, only interest. Bella and he were just the reverse. Possibly they had a bit more conflict than most. Possibly so.

Then something occurred to him. A loophole. He could get there without her. He'd go the same way Arthur went: on one of those cheap minibuses the casino sent around, the ones they advertised in the paper every Sunday. It would not really be his style to travel in a big group that way, but it would do, he thought.

Now that he'd been liberated from Bella, now that he did not require her for his expedition after all, now that he felt, to be honest, somewhat superior to her, more farsighted and ambitious, the way he used to feel on the road sometimes, driving a big rental car past a small industrial city over a wide gleaming elevated highway—Howard hesitated for a moment, confused. What was he doing? It was the way he'd felt after that procedure at the doctor's, the one with the balloons. This strange new pressure in his chest which was more like the absence of pressure. This strange new life to get used to. And this sense of having been ready, ready a long time, without even knowing.

***

The first disappointment was the minibus, which turned out to be a lot more mini than he'd supposed — just a narrow ten-seater van with a sliding door, atrocious shocks, and the casino's mauve moon logo painted on one side. When it pulled up in front of the stationery store, idling noisily and belching exhaust, Howard grimaced; he could see it was already full of old people from other stops, other towns. Not old like him, but old. Nine in the morning, he's wearing his good blue blazer and gray slacks, and he has to scrunch into a seat between two of the world's oldest, most annoying women.

Bella's revenge, he thought: everywhere you go you're walled in.

"You've been?" one of the women says to him. White frizzy hair piled up on her head like a helmet. Pink-rimmed glasses. Breathing hard, as if at her age even sitting down was too much exercise. She appeared to be checking out his wedding ring.

"Been what?"

"You know. Been."

"No," he says. "First time."

"We went yesterday, Charlotte and me. Yesterday was a very good day, wasn't it, Charlotte?"

"Oh, yesterday," said Charlotte dreamily.

"Won over fifty dollars at Keno. Fifty-five. Then we played the slots. Then we went and heard that black singer, what's his name, Smoker —"

"Smokey Robinson," said Charlotte.

"That's right. They let you in to watch the afternoon rehearsal if you ask, and it's free."

Howard nodded. What had he done yesterday? Argued with Bella in the backyard. Listened to the radio. Read a mystery.

The woman on his left sighed. "A very good day. That's why we're going back. The first rule, you know, is not to mess up a good streak."

"Oh?" He waited to hear the second rule.

"And the buffet," Charlotte put in from his right. "Don't forget the buffet."

"My god." The woman on his left shook her head with a reverence that bordered on sorrow, "I swear I've never eaten so much in my life."

"Oh yes," said Charlotte.

"Charlotte had the popcorn shrimp, I had prime rib. Chili con came. Chicken with pesto. Five kinds of pie for dessert. Plus the chocolate mousse. You tried the chocolate mousse?"

He could see there was no use in repeating how this was his first time. She had switched on her tape and it was going to loop around to its conclusion no matter what. So he leaned his head back against the seat and closed his eyes, listening to the thrumming bass notes of the tires. The road, the road. He missed it terribly. Of course he'd have preferred to be the driver, not the driven, but it was pleasant to be going somewhere for a change, just sitting back and surrendering to the machine. You could, he supposed, surrender too much. Like that time last March on the Triborough bridge. A warm night, warm enough to roll the windows down even before he got to the toll plaza, and though he'd spent most of it receiving bad news from his accountant at an overpriced Mexican restaurant on Eighth Avenue, Howard had felt, driving uptown, curiously cool and detached, as if now that the thin rope that bound his fortunes to the earthly plane of balance sheets and profit-and-loss statements had been severed for good, those fortunes were finally free to ascend, to seek out new homes in the vastness of space. Around him the city shuddered with light. There was a mild trickling noise in his head which, after the heavy meal and thunderous rock music and the six-dollar margaritas, might have been a smattering of respectful applause, the kind an arm-weary starting pitcher might hear late in the game, two runs behind, reliever strolling in from the bullpen — okay, it said, enough for now, you've tried, you've tried, you've tried. And then coming off the bridge he threw in his token, and the gate arm clicked and rose, and he stepped on the accelerator and roared the hell out of Manhattan as he used to, god, forty years back, in his golden Ford, after a night at Roseland with Fay, the car swerving beneath him as Fay herself would swerve, later, beneath the fake Utrillo in her parents' living room, and though Fay was long gone now and Howard not far behind, he succumbed all over again to the softness that seemed to lie at the center of things, the perfume that rose like breath from Fay's skin, her trembling, already-halfway-to-zaftig thighs, her clumsy and reticent mouth, and for a moment it was no longer clear to him where he was going, which way was forward and which way back, though the issue was resolved when his enormous humming front end — the Buick's, not the Ford's — plowed directly into the trunk of the Saab ahead of him.

Excerpted from The Varieties of Romantic Experience by Robert Cohen. Copyright 2003 by Robert Cohen. Excerpted by permission of Vintage. All rights reserved.

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