Jacob Epstein Essay - Critical Essays

Epstein, Jacob


Epstein, Jacob 1956–

Epstein is an American novelist whose first book, Wild Oats, was published just before he graduated from Yale University. The immediacy of the experience in this novel about a college freshman generally won praise from reviewers, many of whom compared the book to The Catcher in the Rye. Epstein, however, became the center of a literary imbroglio when Martin Amis charged him with "borrowing" a number of lines and chunks from his own novel, The Rachel Papers.

Daphne Merkin

[Wild Oats] is about college—that haven of deferred responsibilities—and unrequited love and identity-crisis; in short, everything that goes along with being old enough to vote and drink yet too young to know what you really want to be when (and if) you grow up….

The oats that get sown in Wild Oats are, in fact, rather tame, and Billy Williams is hardly your traditional merrymaking rascal: Hindered by self-consciousness and a developed sense of the absurd, he looks askance at the rowdier doings of his cronies and spends most of his time minutely analyzing his own sensations. Jacob Epstein has an almost Dreiserian eye for social detail and a real comic flair; he writes of youthful introspection and perturbation with insight and wit.

Unfortunately, Wild Oats is overblown, going on at far too great a length about experiences that don't merit such elaboration. Perhaps Epstein, who is barely out of Yale himself, needs to acquire greater distance from the sturm und drang of his own adolescence. Once he is better able to separate the fictional wheat from the chaff, his talents will doubtless be featured to riper effect. (p. 16)

Daphne Merkin, "Growing Up in America," in The New Leader (© 1979 by the American Labor Conference on International Affairs, Inc.), Vol. 62, No. 12, June 4, 1979, pp. 15-16.∗

Anne Tyler

There's an immediacy to ["Wild Oats"] that is lacking in other, more distantly written college novels. The endless round of classes, overdue papers, packages from home that never arrive—they're all here, where usually they'd be skipped over. And most important, the sense of time seems absolutely right. The story begins at Christmas, with some puzzling references to Billy's black eye. It swings back to September and the start of his college year; then it works through the term and up to Christmas again, at which point his black eye is explained. And there are flashbacks, all along, to Billy's childhood and early teens. The result is that Christmas seems to arrive, in this novel, exactly when it arrives in most real-life freshman years: about eight months after September. The rest of the world may rush on; "Wild Oats" hangs in a convincingly college-like vacuum.

There's one glaring error in this book, or so it seems to me. Although Billy's single point of view colors the whole plot perfectly and tells us all we need to know, every now and then there's a chapter giving us an English professor's side of it, which adds nothing. Other than that, "Wild Oats" is unfaltering—a densely written, solid piece of work, far beyond what you'd expect of a first novel. Jacob Epstein is more than promising. He writes with authority and grace, and he has a remarkable ability to allow a story to develop, seemingly on its own, from the texture of its characters' lives. (p. 14)

Anne Tyler, "Two Novels: Growing Up," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1979 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), June 17, 1979, pp. 14, 38.∗

Josh Rubins

[Wild Oats is] a slight, imperfect, but wisely funny and eminently publishable first novel…. (p. 43)

[Billy's] nebbishly Galahad act, which owes rather too much to The Graduate and other touchstones of postadolescent romanticism, isn't quite enough of a story to parlay [his] charmingly low-key hysteria (at one point all his friends and relations—plus characters from The Faerie Queene—form a conga line in his insomniac fantasies) into shapely, full-length fiction. But never mind. By not trying too hard to be hip, hilarious, or touching, Epstein winds up being all three—in a canny and surprisingly dry novel of modest present pleasures and tremendous future promise. (pp. 43-4)

Josh Rubins, "Books in Brief: 'Wild Oats'," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1979 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. 6, No. 13, June 23, 1979, pp. 43-4.

Blake Morrison

Wild Oats is at one level the archetypal campus novel, with the usual set-pieces (boring lectures, dope and drinking escapades, cheating and cramming), and one outstandingly good episode in which the hero, Billy, attempts to explain 'Dover Beach' to a black fellow-student who has to write an essay on it…. The novel has a fine eye for the absurdities of academe, but because it sees all through the hero Billy, a vulnerable and fantasising freshman, its British counterpart is less The History Man than Larkin's Jill.

On another level Wild Oats is a Jewish family saga with strong echoes of The Graduate and Portnoy's Complaint….

Finally, and perhaps least interestingly, Wild Oats is a love story describing Billy's hopeless pursuit of a former girlfriend, Zizi, and ending with his humiliation. The novel's material might have made a lesser writer smartass or self-pitying, but Epstein has an excellent command of tone, and an affectionate, ironic stance.

Blake Morrison, "On A 'Guilt-Go-Round'," in New Statesman (© 1980 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. 99, No. 2553, February 22, 1980, p. 289.∗

Stephen Fender

Wild Oats looks at first like a late 1970s remake of The Catcher in the Rye. Once again it's the youth who act responsibly and the adults (in this case casualties of the 60's) who have the "phony values"…. Jacob Epstein is too subtle a writer (already, already) to offer this as objective satire. Unlike Holden Caulfield, Billy is no guru. The third-person narrative is Jamesian in that, except where it treats of Russo's involved, self-conscious reflections, it is restricted to Billy's vocal and intellectual range….

I know of very few novels, at least first novels, in which the author has managed to combine subtle knowing about writing with such fresh, naïve perceptions appropriate to his protagonist's age. Billy is an adolescent; so he lives on that cusp between uneasy past and uncertain future that makes adolescent meditations so melodramatic. The future presents itself in alternative scenarios….

Wild Oats is no bad omen. If Jacob Epstein can remain true to his age, whatever it is, when he writes his next novel, and not be prompted by praise like this to freeze his future protagonists in futile re-runs of the adolescent Billy Williams—that is, if he can avoid Salinger's nemesis—he will turn into a very interesting novelist indeed.

Stephen Fender, "The Generation Game," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1980; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 4013, February 22, 1980, p. 202.

Darryl Pinckney

When Wild Oats by Jacob Epstein appeared in 1979, I read it with pleasure. It seemed to me a typical first novel, very much in the American grain. Divorced parents, college, disastrous first love, comic ineptitude in sex; dread of acne, of unfinished term papers, of drunk and sermonizing adults; unease with the blankness of the future—one of those books in the tradition of Catcher in the Rye….

The New York Times of October 21 prominently displayed a news story from England, telling of an article published in The Observer and written by Martin Amis … whose novel of 1973, The Rachel Papers, he believes supplied Epstein with a number of lines, lifted with a few...

(The entire section is 873 words.)