If an unexceptionable man like J. Alfred Prufrock can be the central character of a great poem, why can't, I imagine Joseph Epstein saying to himself, middle-aged, mild-mannered Jewish guys in Chicago be given the star treatment in a book of short stories? They are decent, hardworking men, easily overlooked, not cut out for drama and knowing themselves well enough not to seek it. They have been content to measure out their lives with coffee spoons and see themselves as life's "attendant lord[s], one[s] that will do/to swell a progress, start a scene or two." Or, to cut to a crass scene from history, when G. Harrold Carswell, widely regarded as not up to snuff, was President Dwight Eisenhower's nominee for the Supreme Court, someone said in his defense that mediocre people have a right to be represented by one of their own.
Epstein does not regard his characters as mediocre, of course. He treats them with respect and intelligent sympathy. Not a whole lot happens, and yet, in some quiet epiphanies, lives are changed or confirmed in the rightness of their course.
The protagonist of the title story is a 64-year-old family practitioner, three years a widower when he meets a glamorous widow, 12 years younger. She is rich, beautiful and cultured and offers the promise of a life he had never imagined for himself. She whisks him off to plays, symphonies and top-flight restaurants and initiates him into heady sexual practices. She makes it clear she wants to take him to Los Angeles and get married. But he realizes that life is not for him.
"I'm not Maserati. I'm not Spago dinners." He is tired at the end of a working day, wants a quiet evening and an early bed.
The businessman in "Bartlestein's First Fling" decides against having an affair with a lovely and much younger employee. He's not a Mercedes; he's like the Lexus he buys instead: "dependable, not too showy, efficient." The narrator of "My Brother Eli" is a solid, unintellectual owner of a used-auto-parts business who views his famous brother, a world-renowned novelist based largely on Saul Bellow, as an unhappy schmuck who has always been disappointed in reality. The narrator both pities and scorns Eli. "Our hands are full trying to cope with the world as it is. We don't waste a lot of time on the world as it ought to be."
But occasionally there are seismic shifts in a life. The young Time staffer and newlywed, first baby on the way, finds his life's vocation in "Beyond the Pale." It is to translate a largely unknown Yiddish novelist he loves into English. The 80-year-old Milton Kuperman meets a music teacher named Judith Neeley and begins to date her. Essentially tone-deaf, he watches her enraptured face at music events but remains mystified. Until, when speaking at her funeral service, he finds himself unexpectedly donating a million dollars for Judith Neeley scholarships to train young musicians. When he steps off the podium, the magic happens.
"In his mind he heard a beautiful joining of a flute and a harp. The music filled him with pleasure of a kind he had never known before. ... He had just achieved ecstasy." Sometimes the mermaids do sing for us.
Brigitte Frase is a writer and book critic in Minneapolis.