Leslie Epstein Katha Pollitt - Essay

Katha Pollitt

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

If writers got gold stars for the risks they took, Leslie Epstein would get a handful for the title story of this collection of short fiction. "The Steinway Quintet" belongs to that rare and difficult genre, the story that is in some sense "about" large intellectual and philosophical problems. Two gun-waving, pill-popping Puerto Rican J. D.'s break into the Steinway Restaurant on Rivington Street—once a favorite haunt of Sarah Bernhardt and Einstein, but now the lonely relic of a vanished Jewish community—and hold the aged waiters, patrons and members of the restaurant orchestra hostage for a huge ransom and a plane to China.

The setup is almost too convenient for the conflict Epstein wants to illuminate between culture and violence, but as narrated by the pianist Goldkorn, self-proclaimed free-thinker and occasional tippler, "The Steinway Quintet" manages to be deft, original and very funny. At once shrewd and wide-eyed, Goldkorn is the perpetual optimist….

Through Goldkorn, Epstein recalls with an affectionate but unsentimental playfulness the passionate intellectuality of the Eastern European Jews. But for Epstein the claims of reason, in which those Jews placed their faith, are of as little avail in the Steinway Restaurant as they were in Hitler's Germany. The puniness of reason in the face of horror becomes comic: "What is the cause of this fear of death?" asks one of the customers, a Freudian analyst, as the hoodlums prepare to murder everyone. "Let us think of it in a rational manner. Is it not in reality the childish fear of losing the penis? Of being cut off from this source of guilty pleasure? Notice how when we recognize the source of our anxiety it at once disappears....

(The entire section is 709 words.)