Daniel Fuchs Fuchs, Daniel (Vol. 8) - Essay

Fuchs, Daniel (Vol. 8)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Fuchs, Daniel 1909–

An American novelist, short story writer, and screenwriter, Fuchs was born in New York but has lived in Hollywood since the thirties. While he won an Academy Award for writing the screenplay for the movie Love Me or Leave Me, Fuch's literary reputation will survive on the basis of three novels written in the thirties that were rediscovered in 1961. Homage to Blenholt, Low Company, and Summer in Williamsburg depict the lives of Jewish slum-dwellers with humor and pathos. In retrospect Fuch's three novels are significant fore-runners of the modern Jewish novel associated with Malamud, Roth, and Bellow.

One of the most talented of novelists to emerge during the Thirties, [Daniel Fuchs] had the least heartening of receptions. Richly original and humorous as the books were, the first, "Summer in Williamsburg," sold four hundred copies; the next, "Homage to Blenholt," sold exactly the same amount, and the third, "Low Company," reached a high point of twelve hundred copies sold. Fuchs can certainly be forgiven for taking what seemed to be a hint on the part of the public, and turning to short stories for The New Yorker and other magazines, and eventually to screenwriting….

[He] slowly became known, mostly to fellow writers, and to serious critics like Alfred Kazin and Irving Howe. Secondhand book dealers began quoting high prices for the available copies of the three volumes. And now they are brought together in one volume…. They go very well together, for the milieu of all three is Brooklyn of the mid-Thirties, and taken together they represent the solid achievement of an author of high stature….

I was fortunate enough to encounter the novels at a relatively early age, being introduced first to "Homage to Blenholt"…. At first I thought Fuchs might be one more member of the school of social realism, prevalent at the time, but though the book was firmly rooted in the tenement life of Brooklyn it was not trying to say that life was terrible and that the class struggle was the answer, but rather that life, wherever it was, had beauty and terror and comedy. The comedy in "Homage to Blenholt" was the best kind, funny and pathetically human at the same time. Poor Max Balkan, living in Williamsburg, dreaming of the fortunes he will someday make and disburse, is to be found everywhere and in every time, and when his dreams of empire—based on an idea for bottling onion juice—are shattered, he becomes every man who must make his sad, compromising adjustment to reality. The homage he pays to Blenholt, the dead Commissioner of Sewers, is the homage paid by the sensitive man to those hard-hearted and insensitive enough to get what they want.

As vivid as young Max Balkan is his old father, once a Yiddish actor, now walking the streets dressed as a clown, carrying the sandwich boards that advertise Madame Clara's Beauty Salon. He doesn't say much, but he knows the tragedy of his son, and philosophically and gently suffers for him. If I have implied that all this is sad, it isn't really. A warm glow of humor, rising at times to hilarity, plays over [these people]….

A darker vein of violence ran through ["Low Company"], but the wild humor and the richness of characterization were still there. Fuchs again managed to find a profound and delectable irony in the most unprepossessing of places, nothing less than a Coney Island soda fountain. Here was a new and marvelous gallery of people…. (p. 17)

I came to "Summer in Williamsburg" last, because of the difficulty of obtaining it, and was not prepared for it to be as good as it is. The vogue for young literary geniuses had not yet begun, and it was hard to imagine that anyone at the age of twenty-four could be so mature and comprehending and at the same time so fully formed as a novelist. Very few writers are able to evoke anything out of the environment that depressed them as they grew. Fuchs has been compared to James T. Farrell, but it is clear now that he had greater gifts than Farrell, and did much more than transcribe. His dialogue, from the very beginning, had a flavor of its own; while seemingly realistic it is as artful as Hemingway's or O'Hara's, and read aloud it usually makes one laugh. In this book, as in the others, there are the sensitive and the brutal; they encounter and are astonished by each other, and Fuchs judges not, for they are all human.

Reading the novels again, I was fearful that they might not hold up, but time has neither dimmed nor darkened them, and I suspect they are more readable and compelling today, if only because the problems are different now, and we can meet all of the author's wonderful people simply as people and not as representatives of a condition. They are fixed now, the nice ones, the evil ones, the old, the young, as a wonderful tapestry of "low life" captured with unsentimental warmth. "These three novels," the jacket tell us, "constitute a minor American classic." What exactly, I find myself wondering, is so minor about them? (p. 18)

Hollis Alpert, "The Southside Story," in Saturday Review (© 1961 by Saturday Review, Inc.; reprinted with permission), September 23, 1961, pp. 17-18.

When Fuchs's novels were reissued in the early sixties much was made of the fabulistic, "poetic" side, as if they could only be appreciated in the wake of a moral allegorist like Malamud. Actually, the great strength of the books is their feeling for the life of the streets, the Runyonesque "low company" of youthful gangs in Williamsburg and Jewish mobsters in the Catskills, a chapter of social history quickly forgotten when the Jews became more respectable and the Jewish novel more morally austere. In Fuchs the moral temperature is low—he is notably ham-handed in portraying the religious life of his Jews, a more inward subject. He is a folklorist, an anthropologist of street life rather than a purveyor of moral parables. For all his freedom from the cant of proletarian writing he remains in essence a 1930s realist; for him life is with the people. (p. 42)

Morris Dickstein, in Partisan Review (copyright © 1974 by Morris Dickstein), Vol. XLI, No. 1, 1974.

In his prose of glimmering diffidence, Fuchs tells the story [in West of the Rockies] of Adele Hogue, a movie star, and Burt Claris, a handsome nobody who works for her talent agency. The beginning of their romance is tersely sketched indeed: "He had taken up with her, had gotten into her good graces, slept with her. Claris was no better than most. She was accessible." (One of the book's incidental mirages is that Fuchs always refers to the hero as "Claris," which sounds feminine, and often to the heroine as "Hogue," which seems masculine.) The novel centers upon a Palm Springs resort to which Adele Hogue has fled after bolting the set of a movie in production; Burt Claris, on behalf of the agency, has chased her there. The action generally observes the unities of this place in these few days of crisis…. (p. 445)

What might be faults in another novel feed this one's dreamlike, movie-like glow. Gentle improbabilities hurry events along. Servants are remarkably obliging: a Filipino hotel steward volunteers his room as a love nest, and a baby's nurse spontaneously tells Burt where his wife has hidden her love letters. The imperfectly guessed motives and sketchily summarized lives give a mysterious largeness to the world beyond the plot's circumference. Los Angeles becomes a nostalgic presence…. (p. 446)

Contracts, erotic as well as financial, take effect in an arid atmosphere purged of any Old World notions of honor or noblesse oblige. The dreams of success and love are acted out against a hard awareness of the "they" who control destinies—the bankers, the gangsters, as implacable and irrational as Greek deities. The women who populate Palm Springs form an ominous chorus of Furies. They lie in the sun discussing girdles and beauty operations, they make love with necklaces on, they fly decorators in from New York and Texas, they are not unkind, having "all been in the business at one time or another, as stand-ins or stock girls," but with men their ardor is "overwhelmingly tender and solicitous and at the same time impersonal, a kindness which they could discontinue seemingly without an instant's feeling or trace of remembrance": they are all, Wigler tells Burt Claris, "secret agents." They have all made their "adjustment," and in this they differ from Adele Hogue.

Fuchs's portrait of a star is masterly. He seems to do everything to diminish her. She appears frightened, sick, vulgar, and foolish, callous to her children and destructive wherever she can reach. Even her body is seen sadly…. Since neither beauty nor skill ("She didn't know anything about acting, never had, would be the first to say so") has lifted her up from the high-school malt shops through the petty prostitutions and mismarriages and neurotic ailments into stardom, what has? Fuchs answers, "Fanatic energy." Adele explains it to herself: "Her special effectiveness with the audience was spontaneous, something organic, beyond control. She believed it was the product of the nervous system you were endowed with, and she was convinced her nerves were used up, that you were given just so much." So "star quality" exacts an exceptional toll, and reader and author and lover together come to adore anew this exasperating and worse-than-average woman. Using as his material the shabbiest truths, Fuchs rebuilds the Hollywood myth; a happy ending evolves in an atmosphere of exhausted illusion. When, at the end, Adele Hogue stands with Burt on the edge of a marital partnership perhaps—who knows?—as profitable as that of Doris Day and Marty Melcher, and turns to him in the mass of reporters and mouths "I love you" as if on a sound stage, her sincerity is beyond gauging; we are dazzled by her courage, her real will to go on living her life of unreality. (pp. 446-48)

John Updike, "Phantom Life," in his Picked-Up Pieces (copyright © 1975 by John Updike; reprinted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.), Knopf, 1975, pp. 444-48.

[A] claustrophobic actuality [is present in] a trilogy—Summer in Williamsburg, Homage to Blenholt, Low Company—that Daniel Fuchs wrote in the thirties as a comédie humaine of Brooklyn immigrant life. Set in a gray slum at the foot of the Williamsburg Bridge, Fuchs's novels take the immigrant story a generation further, to the American-born sons and daughters growing up in the early thirties, ready to flee their parents but without purpose or possibility. The cramped life of the slums is to be decisive, even traumatic, in shaping Fuchs' work. There can hardly have been another American writer, except perhaps James T. Farrell, whose image of life has been so tightly bound by his adolescent years, whose entire creative effort is so painful a struggle to come to terms with memory and its costs, yet whose achievement, in the bruised serenity that shines through his best work, seems finally much more than the growl or whimper which a young writer brings to his unhappiness.

If it makes sense to speak of American Jewish writing as a regional literature, Fuchs is one of the most regional—even provincial—among these writers. Rarely does his horizon extend beyond the slum: it is there that he finds his truth and his sadness. All of Fuchs's novels are dominated by a sense of place as it grasps a man's life and breaks him to its limits. Summer in Williamsburg may seem at first like still another study of an unhappy, sensitive youth, but it soon becomes clear that Fuchs is not merely prey to a dilemma, he is actively developing a novelistic idea. And that idea is the way the power of environment, the tyranny of conditions, can take over a life.

The power of the Jewish past fades, there is hardly even a conscious rejection of it; all that remains in these novels is the children of the immigrants, scurrying through Williamsburg streets, seeking ways of escape and avenues of pleasure but soon learning that escape is unlikely and pleasure brief. And that, insists Fuchs with a quiet but self-tormenting passion, is the law of Williamsburg life. From first to last he is obsessed with this single theme: escape and trap. At the end of Summer in Williamsburg the central figure sadly reflects on what he sees about him:

That was the choice … Papraval [his uncle, a racketeer] or his father. Papraval, smoking cigars, piled up money and glowed with sweat and happiness, while his father sat with his feet on the windowsill in the dimness of a Williamsburg flat…. He was heading in his father's direction…. Look at him, Philip said, he's old, he's skinny, and all he has after all the years is a cigarette and a window.

What Fuchs brings to the immigrant experience is a wry and disenchanted tenderness, perhaps because he possesses that capacity for accepting the "given," that stoicism which, like an underground river, winds through both Jewish faith and Jewish rebellion. It is not exactly love for his world or his people that is at stake here, but something that for a writer like Fuchs is more important: a total absorption in his materials, so that his rendered world creates an illusion of coming not from craft or contrivance but from some deeper, shared necessity.

Fuchs's best book, Homage to Blenholt, releases a gift for exuberant comedy, a sweetly mocking play with Jewish daydreams. Untroubled by the vice of abstraction, Fuchs is the most novelistic of all the American Jewish novelists. No theories concerning the destiny of the Jews weigh upon his books; he seems quite indifferent to those modern notions which transform Jewish characters into agents of the human condition, symbols of estrangement, heroes of consciousness. He writes about quite unremarkable people, Jews in the slums, neither larger nor smaller than life; he writes as a young man enjoying the discovery of his mimetic powers but also as an older man, Jewish to the marrow, who is never able to forget the essential sadness of things. Two generations speak through his work, that of the father, the ridiculed "Mr. Fumfotch," and that of the son, a Brooklyn Harold Lloyd aflame with dreams of grandeur. Moving past ideologies as if some blessing of fate had made them invisible, Fuchs is closer to such Yiddish storytellers as Sholom Aleichem than are most of the later, more intellectualized American Jewish writers, since for him, too, the life of the Jews is a sufficient subject, a universe unto itself. The past has been lost, the future seems inaccessible, but the immigrant present encloses everything: a cigarette and a window. (pp. 590-91)

Irving Howe, in his World of Our Fathers (© 1976 by Irving Howe; reprinted by permission of Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc.), Harcourt, 1976.