Jerome Weidman Essay - Weidman, Jerome

Weidman, Jerome

Weidman, Jerome 1913–

A prolific American author of novels, plays, and short stories, Weidman, according to one critic, has two preoccupations: business and Jewishness. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

Jerome Weidman comes close to being a really good short story writer; his ear is accurate, and he presents the nubs of his stories, neatly wrapped, for his readers to carry away. The trouble is that while there is always something in the packages, there is never much. One smiles wryly at a character's small defeat (or more rarely, small victory) and then passes on untroubled to another story equally expert and forgettable.

As he did in his novels (I Can Get It For You Wholesale, The Enemy Camp), Weidman writes about unpleasant parents, nasty children, World War II (his civilians feel guilty about not seeing combat), Manhattan's Lower East Side, marriage, and the sort of women who, 25 years ago, wore silver fox capes. He treats these subjects seriously and rarely comes close to humor. He is too meticulous to tolerate really gross clichés (although a hotel room can "command" a view), and he is too circumspect to attempt beauty. He is, as he explains in a soberly appreciative preface, a professional.

A look at The Explorers, one of the … more successful stories [in My Father Sits in the Dark], shows that he is right…. Weidman delivers his grim moment expertly, but the reader's admiration is mixed. There is something safe and synthetic about the story. One feels that if Hemingway had done it, risking more, it would have been better, or a good deal worse—and that either change would be welcome.

Weidman never takes risks. Within sight of shore, however, he can be impressive, and the best story [An Easy One] in this large collection is very good indeed. (pp. 69-70)

Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; copyright Time Inc.), July 7, 1961.

The "rags-to-riches" story has long been the one that Jerome Weidman has liked best to tell. It was part of his first novel, "I Can Get It for You Wholesale." It will be found again in "The Enemy Camp." Indeed, it may be his only story, or at any rate, the only one he will never be through with. (p. 6)

Having a hero competent to philosophize about his rise in the world [as here, in "The Sound of Bow Bells,"] proves rather chastening to Weidman. In "The Enemy Camp," he pursued his protagonist from an orphanage onwards and upwards to exurbia without a faltering to examine the process. But the new book is written in a thoughtful, twilight mood. Certainly there are as many manslaughters, adulteries, and airplane crashes here as ever before, but against the hard grain of disaster a melancholy is projected that is worthy of James Gould Cozzens. Even the structure of the novel recalls "By Love Possessed." (pp. 6-7)

Cozzens notwithstanding, the better parts of Weidman's novel are those in which he taps his more natural vein. He is fine and extravagant in his satiric moments, and he can draw a villain as savagely as any writer around….

Weidman's single really serious mistake in the novel [is] Sam's wife Jennie. Jennie is conceived in so high a key that if the book is overplotted, it is nobody's fault but hers. Femme fatale, virago, egomaniac, she can make practically anything she wants to happen, and does. She is the kind of character it takes a Euripides to handle; neither Sam, the mute Milton, nor Weidman, can do it. (p. 7)

William Wiegand, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1962 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), July 22, 1962.

[Back Talk is] a smorgasbord of slight essays by Jerome Weidman, little exercises full of pompous and obvious pronouncements on such matters as the United Nations and the joys of reading….

Whether describing his wartime perils or discussing golf, Weidman attempts the necessary pose of an iconoclast; but he is no radical prophet, and he remains in essence more Jerome than Jeremiah. If there is an American Establishment he might well be its mouthpiece.

Weidman's essays are far too slick; but, more important, they lack the sense of caring, the feeling that the author wrote them because he had to. Harvey Swados in his epigraph to A Radical's America quotes from Chekhov:

There ought to be, behind the door of every happy, contented man, someone standing with a hammer, continually reminding him with a tap that there are unhappy people.

Part of Weidman's failure is that he doesn't seem to have heard that tap, tap, tap. The rest is due to a steady tone of triviality.

Charles Shapiro, "Urbs and Suburbs," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1963 by Saturday Review, Inc.; reprinted with permission), November 2, 1963, p. 35.

Typically, [the tales in The Death of Dickie Draper and Nine Other Stories] lead up to a moment of illumination in the life of the central character—a moment that may be psychological, but is often moral as well. Unlike many recent authors, Mr. Weidman seemingly assumes that a conscience is a built-in part of human beings, and that self-knowledge involves it as well as an amazed recognition of the Id….

At times the stories become just a shade slick and gimmicky …, but taking the collection as a whole, Mr. Weidman shows an impressive ability to create real plots, real characters, and to dramatize those rare moments when the self reveals itself with fearful clarity.

Chad Walsh, "Kindling Points," in Chicago Tribune Book Week (© The Washington Post), May 30, 1965, p. 14.

Worse even than treating Jerome Weidman seriously as a novelist who has failed in his latest effort is watching him suddenly trying to take himself seriously.

Some writers are really no more than tailors who follow the patterns dictated to them by their customers. There is nothing shameful about this—in fact, if they do it well they can serve an admirable function as a respite from television and so many bad movies. But when these tailors begin to think that their clothes truly make the man, well….

And this is Mr. Weidman's problem in Other People's Money…. He manipulates his usual cardboard figures against an intricate tangle of plots, and, to give them a semblance of reality, he catalogues all sorts of trappings of the years from 1915 to the late Forties.

The result is a pretentious hodgepodge, not even entertaining, of the worst of the possible worlds of Horatio Alger, Theodore Dreiser, and Harold Robbins. It suffers from Alger's lack of depth, Dreiser's woodenness, and Robbins's attempt to conceal his shortcomings behind a game of musical beds. On top of this, Mr. Weidman even lacks Mr. Robbins's unashamed lustiness….

Suffice to say that the book reads like a novice's attempt to write a reverse-English Great American Novel with the help of one of those One Hundred Sure-Selling Plots manuals.

Conceded, this is an ambitious effort for Mr. Weidman, who can write an entertaining book when his reach does not exceed his grasp. Sadly, it is both too ambitious and not ambitious enough.

Joseph Haas, "Titanic Orphan Becomes Tycoon," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1967 by Saturday Review, Inc.; reprinted with permission), May 20, 1967, p. 43.

It would be ridiculous to criticize Weidman for not writing like Kafka, or for writing books that sell. The great Dickens, whom Weidman so much admires, was of course a "commercial" artist. What I am saying is that the author of I Can Get It for You Wholesale, and of such veracious short stories as "The Kinnehorrah," "Movable Feast," "Houdini," and "Pennants Must Have Breezes," has in Fourth Street East resorted to artifice and exclamation when he should have sought to capture the complex quality of experience. (p. 32)

Richard Clark Sterne, in Saturday Review (copyright © 1971 by Saturday Review, Inc.; reprinted with permission), January 9, 1971.

Even nostalgia, somebody recently remarked, isn't what it used to be. This glum aperçu is confirmed by Last Respects, a fictionalized memoir of life on the Lower East Side in 1927. For Benny Kramer—a middle-aged, second-generation American Jew, whose reminiscences are evoked by the news of his mother's death—describes a bleak neighborhood and a bitter family life….

[This is] another Jerome Weidman book in which an improbable, mechanically developed story is superimposed upon the vividly described, grubby realities of everyday existence.

Last Respects differs, however, from other Weidman books (Fourth Street East, for example, which dealt with the same milieu) in that its tone is relentlessly sour. Benny Kramer's remembrance of things past is filled not only with rats and bedbugs but with failed or hostile human relationships. And Benny's comments on New York City and America at large, circa 1970, express a desperate cynicism….

In short, to a significant degree Last Respects gives voice to the fears and resentments of middle-class city dwellers who are looking for scapegoats. The problems of New York and of American civilization are quite grave; so, too, is the existential situation of all fiftyish Benny Kramers. But fiction such as Last Respects does not help us to face these predicaments. (p. 69)

Richard Clark Sterne, in Saturday Review (copyright © 1972 by Saturday Review, Inc.; reprinted with permission), January 22, 1972.

[Tiffany Street] is the third of Jerome Weidman's "Benny Kramer novels"—"… yet another tale in the wonderfully engaging Benny Kramer saga," as the dust-jacket blurb puts it—and one can only pray that it will be the last. If you think Louis Auchincloss is predictable, try Jerome Weidman.

It's funny about Jerome Weidman. His first novel, I Can Get It for You Wholesale, added a phrase to the language and deservedly so; it is still, long after publication, a tough and honest and realistic depiction of the garment trade. But since that novel, with a couple of semi-successful exceptions, Weidman has opted for schmaltz. (p. 3)

Jonathan Yardley, in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), March 3, 1974.

The hero of [Tiffany Street] is Benny Kramer, a middle-aged Jewish attorney previously seen only in films starring Walter Matthau; in this book he is looking over the chip on his shoulder—to Tiffany Street, the golden mile of the novel's title, with a nostalgie de la bootlessness for the pubescent metropolis of the 'thirties. After all, it was only there that you could bat out a few fungoes, play some lievio and dunk a few ruggles for ten cents with Natie Farkas, Chink Alberg and Hot Cakes Rabinowitz. Oy oy oy, this is too ethnic already but Weidman has a professional brio which brings schmalzwerke into its own.

It is impossible to aspire to this kind of humour without a defiant innocence which, in Tiffany Street, can make even the garment industry a cheerful haven for the dispossessed. It is from this quarter that Weidman can retail the egalitarianism which is the staple of Jewish-American life, and the novel itself is a compendium of that mixture of wryness and softness which makes Jewish humour so funny and Jewish seriousness so self-indulgent….

It must in all fairness be said … that the plot tends to ramble somewhat, as Benny digresses into the past, returning to the present only at times of extreme emergency and scattering narrative connections through the narrative like peanut shells. But this is no great matter, since it is the characterisation which provides the fake diamonds. Weidman can shoot his moving targets with some brief, deft strokes. It is a cheerful book, and it does not make heavy demands upon the reader's attention; but … [in] true Dickensian fashion (a writer whom Weidman clearly much admires), there are some piercing rays of gloom….

Tiffany Street affirms so many moods and sustains so many characters that it almost becomes a major achievement despite itself. It is not a master-work, but it is more spirited than the weary realism and the even wearier experimentalism which is now current among the Anglo-Saxon nations. (p. 710)

Peter Ackroyd, in The Spectator (© 1974 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), June 8, 1974.

Jerome Weidman's special terrain is Jewish-American life; he has been writing about it for nearly 40 years and has gathered a loyal following. Although "The Temple" doesn't stray very far from the borders of his work, it is still a curious mix of genres: the novel as a 20th-century miracle play. Jerome Weidman's beleaguered "saint" is a poor boy from Albany who emerges from World War II with a mysterious fortune. This fortune determines the course of the book….

The psychology of the book is primitive. The writing is often inept. Dave [the protagonist] can pull memories out of "the secret drawer" in his head. Husbands and wives exist as "teams" standing on "solid rock." Grandmothers don't die in Weidman's novel: they hang up their gloves.

Yet the book seems to work. It runs on its own fuel, with Weidman hopping between banalities and a kind of magic. He has the energy and the need to tell his story. Because Weidman has involved himself in Dave Dehn's … vision, we are caught up in the events…, and moved by the isolation of Dave's struggle, collapse and death. (p. 36)

Jerome Charyn, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1976 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), February 22, 1976.