TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Before the appearance of today's morning zoo style of shock jocks, an earlier generation of radio personalities entertained their audiences with daily nonstop patter and pranks. Writer Ross Klavan has a close family link to that world, which he explores in his new novel called "Schmuck." Book critic Maureen Corrigan has a review.
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
Beginning in 1952 and running through 1968, there was a legendary radio show called "Klavan and Finch" that was on WNEW in New York City. It was a four-hour live program featuring music and antic conversation between handsome straight man Dee Finch and his live-wire counterpart, Gene Klavan.
MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: Here's a clip from "Klavan and Finch" that'll give you a sense of what many New Yorkers listened to every morning over their toast and coffee.
(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "KLAVAN AND FINCH")
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) Have a good, good morning. Get up with Klavan and Finch, only on WNEW in New York.
DEE FINCH: Hello there, I'm Dee Finch, you know, Klavan and Finch, WNEW every morning from six to 10? Saturdays we start at eight. Oh, here comes my partner now. Hey, son of a gun, he's got a little dog with him. Hi, Gene. Hey, that's a beautiful little dog, huh?
GENE KLAVAN: Yeah, I got it from my wife.
FINCH: Great. How'd you ever make a trade like that?
CORRIGAN: Gene Klavan's son Ross has just published an exuberant novel loosely based on his father's radio career. It bears the distinctive title"Schmuck." The politest translation from the Yiddish would be jerk. The characters - many of them jerks - who populate Klavan's novel speak fluent, mid-20th-century New York-ese, which means their chatter is sprinkled with slang like moolah, Holy Moly and tootsie.
Klavan also does a superb job conjuring up the cityscape of a bygone Manhattan, its newsstands and watering holes. Granted, some landmarks like P.J. Clarke's, the Friars Club and The Plaza Oak Room still linger on, but the golden age when you could rub elbows at the bar with the likes of a Henny Youngman or a Rocky Graziano is long gone.
The plot of "Schmuck" touches on the inevitable tensions between the two famous radio sidekicks, here called Elkin and Fox, whose faces are plastered in newspapers and on highway billboards. Jerry Elkin is the funnyman who conjures up dialects for zany characters like Dr. Huckleberry the Viennese shrink and Mr. Nosh the deli man.
Ted Fox is the golden-voiced straight man with an eye for a good-looking dame. The best looking dame of all in this tale is an 18-year-old high school senior named Sari Rosenbloom. Ted Fox and Elkin's teenage son Jake are among her romantic conquests. Sari lives in a suburban palace in Great Gatsby country on Long Island, and all comparisons to Fitzgerald's femme fatale Daisy Buchanan are intentional.
Ross Klavan clearly has inherited his father's gift for comedy. Not only is his loony plot the narrative equivalent of a Rube Goldberg contraption with surprise guest appearances by the likes of Sinatra and Soupy Sales, but the novel is replete with snappy conversations and descriptions. For instance, when the clever Sari is fixed up with a bland, WASP lawyer, she comments that he looks like the offspring of a tennis court and a yacht.
Like the best comic novels, though, "Schmuck" isn't all fun and games. There's a sober subtext here, and it has to do with the turbulent year when this novel takes place: 1969. Elkin, like so many of the adult men in this story, is a veteran of World War II. He carries the war around with him in a visceral way his son Jake can never understand. Here's a passage in which Elkin thinks about that generational divide.
(Reading) Elkin had taught Jake the rabbit punch, the knee in the groin, the throat grab, the things he'd been taught in the jungle on Guam and Okinawa. And little Jake would go off to school as another trained Jap killer. Only he hadn't killed any Japs. And he hadn't held onto the bones, the insides, the bodies of those who'd been killed by Japs. And he hadn't been nearly killed himself. And Elkin would sometimes think of his son, Jake, and say to himself: He doesn't know.
The generation gap is transforming the very streets of New York in this Vietnam-era novel. In one especially pointed scene, hard hat construction workers yell out greetings to the celebrity Jerry Elkin at the same time they try to beat up his long-haired hippy son.
The goofy humor of an Elkin and Fox and their real-life counterparts, Klavan and Finch would also be collateral casualties of changing times and tastes. With a sure, light touch, "Schmuck" captures a transitional moment in the history of New York and the kind of entertainment that once kept the city laughing.
GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches at Georgetown University. She reviewed Ross Klavan's novel "Schmuck."
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