Stanley Hoffman Essay - Critical Essays

Hoffman, Stanley

Hoffman, Stanley 1944–

Hoffman is an American novelist.

[Stanley Hoffman's first novel, Solomon's Temple,] is a vulgar book, populated by grotesque people doing unpleasant things, and if I were to think hard I could probably come up with any number of nits to pick. It is also an extraordinarily audacious piece of writing, boldly conceived and beautifully executed, hilarious and tragic at the same time, the sort of book Philip Roth attempted (and failed) to write in The Breast. (I was about to add that it is a fresh breath of air, too, but then I remembered that much of it concerns certain indelicate functions of the intestines.) Its subject is fat….

Laughter and terror are Stanley Hoffman's tools and he wields them with masterful and telling effect, often on the most unlikely subjects: a ghoulishly seductive potato salad (it sings in the night, calling and beckoning from the refrigerator), the boys' room of a yeshiva, the candy aisle of a supermarket, an unspeakable Thanksgiving dinner, and the sight of a pretty girl walking across a lawn in shorts. (There is also a lot of sex, most of it grotty. Brilliantly grotty.)

He even gives fresh life—if that is quite the word for it—to that most shopworn of contemporary stock companies, the Brooklyn Jewish lumpenproletariat. In Hoffman's hands, Jay Solomon is no mere character in a novel, no mere figure in a tapestry of words. He is a living, breathing, painfully human metaphor of all of us in this strange, inchoate country: he believes in the perfectability of man and the efficacy of simple remedies. While assiduously tending the temple of his flesh (first feeding it, then starving it and finally exercising it into a boulder of muscle), he has totally ignored the garden of his spirit, and it is rank with weeds. His failure is the failure of us all, a very a American tragedy. If a finer, more bitter and truer work of fiction has appeared within the last 12 months—with the lonely exception of Judith Rascoe's superb Yours, and Mine—I have not seen it, and I doubt that it is there. (p. 2)

L. J. Davis, in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), February 10, 1974.

[The hero of "Solomon's Temple"] puts his pudgy finger on what goes wrong with this book: "The inevitability of progress, after all, tends to lose its excitement after a while." With his shamelessly stereotyped Jewish parents, Jay Solomon is a smeared carbon of Portnoy, without Roth's terrifying comedy. His prose is too often unbelievably phony…. You keep hoping it's all a stylistic joke, a sly technique of characterizing a pathetic, self-pitying schlepp, but lamentably, you soon see that it's not, that Mr. Hoffman is no more certain of his attitude, his tone, toward Jay than is the reader. A spontaneous laugh, even if cruel, can justify the most tasteless of jokes. A twinge of empathetic agony, even in response to a freakshow, can excuse what smells like exploitation of authentic misery. "Solomon's Temple" has neither joy, nor love, nor light, nor help for pain. (pp. 37-8)

James R. Frakes, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1974 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 24, 1974.