The Everyman’s Everyman
A review of Bibliomaniacs, by Joseph Halper, and Halper’s Bookshop, owned by same.
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Joseph Halper (but I must interject already—whoever thought to call him Joseph? it’s Joe, man) sits in his second-hand bookshop, Halper’s, in central Tel Aviv, from nine to nineteen hundred hours, weekdays. He sits on a wooden stool, the kind usually found tucked under the bar of a pub (it would not surprise if in fact it came from one), behind a hefty desk that can’t see its own face for all its clutter. On a shelf beside the desk is a spavined radio, with the chopstick antennas, from which plays an invariable program of Jazz or Classical. A telephone, the one with the spiraling chord, makes its regular throat-clearing interruption. Its tocsin usually augurs some disingenuous customer for whom it is a remarkable undertaking to get to asking the very simple question of whether Halper’s bookshop carries a certain title or author, wasting time and services like old women who place calls to the ambulance for want of company.
Like pubs, bookshops have their habitual visitors, and Joe will hold converse at various segments of the day with these familiars (I am such a one), who come as much for the banter as for the bindings. If not behind the desk, Joe is outside, at another desk, upon which he arranges the daily delivery of books that randomly make its way to his shop.
Among a secondhand bookstore’s inevitably-drawn are that mass of terranean entrepreneurs, those street-pacing middlemen who peddle books—books found on benches, books snaffled from hostelries, books pilfered from cafes, books glommed from the city’s free outdoor libraries—from one bookstore to another. They run between various parts of the city and the bookstore, with satchels full of abandoned, or, let us say ‘borrowed’ tomes, and pour out their store of paper treasure onto Halper’s outdoor counter in an amorphous pile of hard and soft edges. They watch intently as Halper sorts this mass into left and right stacks—left, those books he can make do with; right, those books with which he has nothing to do. This may be thought of as the inbox-outbox equivalent of the secondhand bookshop owner. They take what they are offered without overmuch protest, usually a few shekels or some small bills.
Joe takes an hour’s hiatus for lunch, and on Fridays an arbitrary, multicultural group of pals form in his ‘patio’ over cheap ale and cheese, perhaps with some herring and Russian pumpernickel, for light disport and raillery before the Shabbas gloaming.
This may appear to you a steady and unsensational routine, but the life of the secondhand bookstore owner can be as adventuresome and incidental as any of the fictional accounts along his shelf.
Never has so passive a seat been witness to such action. While libraries are sush and orderly, secondhand bookshops (but who really knows through how many hands these books have passed) can be said to be its deviant and disobedient cousin.
Amalgamating at the secondhand bookshop is a heterogenous sampling of secondhand people. Thirty years occupying this stool has given Halper a singular view to the city’s circus and its unique band of actors, from the brass-hatted to the shorn of shoe, all of which of course form exceptional material for the writing down. Which, over the slow years, slowly, inevitably, is just what he has done. These compiled stories now feature under the title Bibliomaniacs (given the nature of the stories and their characters, there may be an implied emphasis on that second word of the compound).
I suspect nearly every second-hand bookstore owner or habitué knows of Orwell’s essay in which he speaks of his time having worked in one. He writes of how that fusty, moldy smell of paper, which can evoke such delicious feelings in the litterateur, becomes cloying to him who works routinely in a bookshop. He memorably presents a rogue’s album of illegitimate customers—the bored, the lonely, the socially inept; a host of disreputable characters for whom the used bookshop represents the ideal place to beguile the maximum time with the minimum of expense. These include infuriatingly vague old schoolmarms, “first edition snobs”, and illiterate vagabonds.
Halper’s has had its own harpers: vagrants, drug addicts, malingerers, beggars, snobbish professors, book elitists, meandering tourists.
These enigmatic personages figure in the stories with all their detailed and decrepit lineaments. He does not attempt to retouch the deep craquelure in the portraiture. Nor are they confined to the role of extras, incidental figures there for the amusing touch-up, but are the central sitters before Halper’s realistic brush. The reclusive is exclusive; there doesn’t seem to appear any ‘normal’ against which to either mellow these warped eclectics, or stand them in relief. The sordid, the awkward, the nebbish, the schemey—many socially inept, others with some core flaw beneath the civilized carapace—all mocking disfigurements of ideal, civilized man, decommissioned models from evolution’s factory line.
The contents page shows nineteen stories. The reader should however consider that the neat, handsome edition off the shelf, from dedication to peroration, from the picture on the cover to the praise on the back, is the finished product of a long negotiational process between author and editors and publishing house; and that it is likely that some startlingly bleak passages, and many an offending word, were pared from its pages before going to print. The profane, the ambiguous, or the interpretive must be excised. The racially oblique formulation, the interpretive phrase, the provincial and not universally wholesome view—ibid.
Some whole stories have been excised from this first installment of bibliotecas and their maniacs (inevitable for a raconteur whose stories show up literally at his doorstep). Like the one about a nurse’s raping of a patient in a mental hospital; the one about hoodlums ‘of colour’ who purloined the tip jar at the sushi restaurant (“incidentally,” says Joe, “that place is beyond phenomenal.”); about the Holocaust survivor who (“intimated that”) he killed a U.S. soldier in a D.P. camp after the war’s end.
Besides there being only so much space for so much ink, these stories were likely deemed in the end unwholesome. But the first story is penetrative (as it were) for showcasing how the responsibility of position can flail when one’s ward is too non sui juris to acknowledge or even know the difference, no less for its poke at the feminist narrative. The second story is not, as it was probably perceived, an unhelpful commentary on American black youth, but aids perspective by infusing more colour than usual into the black-white bifurcation, by pitting a ‘minority’ not against an amorphous majority, but against immigrant Japanese, another marginal denomination. And the last story similarly jumbles the blocks of our association, by placing a Polish survivor against one of his saviors, and showing between black axis and white ally, the ugly, dispiriting, persistent grey: the U.S. commander in question allowed his claque to make raids on the Jews in the camp, harassing and beating them. So the antihero of this story eliminates the abettor.
But modern taste—oversensitive, carping, wide awoke—disallows it.
These stories formed a part of a section in the original book called ‘True Confessions in a Book Store’. “Book stores are conducive to conversation like a barber’s chair, or a taxi cab,” says Joe astutely. These ‘confessions’ are not confined to their contrite, or else brazenly unremorseful, utterers, but form a single admission of the human, in which we all perforce take part. They serve our better nature by confronting us with lesser natures, making us reexamine our trusts and alliances, no less with ourselves as with others; thus, hopefully, bringing us to a sharpened idea of the virtuous and the mean, of right and wrong, by forcing us to peer unstintingly at the grey.
First time novelists are bound to the grace of their publisher like a rootless bard of old to his sovereign benefactor. (One thinks of the infamous row had between Joyce and the publishers of his own debut of shorts, Dubliners, and the insult and ire and sense of injustice he felt at the editorial fingerprints beclouding his finely polished ‘looking-glass’.) Joe is, however, ultimately satisfied with the book (he considers himself lucky to have any official brick of words, with his name affixed to the cover, selling legally to the public), which contains some fine, muscular stories. As for the bulk of unused stories, he’s untroubled: “for the sequel,” he says.
This is not to give the impression of some bowdlerized anthology of–that hated term–‘family-friendly’ material; you would certainly not leave a copy unthinkingly by your child’s bedside. There is enough grime and grue in this collection to satisfy the coarsest mysophilia. (That ‘The Pornographic DVDs’, about an Arab smuthound and religious Muslim, was admitted, reveals the publishers to be not too delicate, after all.)
The text bristles with Yiddishisms, as well the sere-as-Sinai wit and oy-vey fatalism which are the idiosyncratic marks of that particular brand of Jewish humor. ‘Shtetl’ mentality is acknowledged, even appreciated. Joe is, of course, only passing comment on his brethren, (Israel is often portrayed as one extended family, not without its dysfunctional side) and, as with the keenest critics, his own person is not exempt from the analytical treatment.
These disparate melodies of human folly and madness play out to a loose score. The narrative is usually set off with a ״I was sitting in my store when…”, or some formula thereof, when suddenly…. In walks a character, along with his habits and eccentricities, around which the events are to revolve. A certain predicament or ‘situation’ is given, which the characters set about resolving in their fashion. After laying a succession of unwise actions or reckless maneuvers or careless remarks, from which the reader can already anticipate the coming blast of consequence, the stories usually close with some sort of dénouement, whereby the form that nemesis takes is disclosed. There is no closing homily, no Aesopian moral takeaway; besides, maybe, the implied exhortation by example, “try not to fuck up too much.” (Or in the Yiddish, “don’t be such a shmuck.”)
Halper gives us the foul festival of humanity in a provincial setting, in idiomatic language, from a localized perspective.
“Yea, it doesn’t exactly require too much intellectual brain power to read.” This, in reference to the no-frills, everyman manner of his style. This may sound humble, but it is an unfair judgement. Foremost evidence against this verdict, the stories are written well, which is to say they are written clear—a skill, or rather a task, the difficulty of which is overlooked or unappreciated. (Hemingway’s ‘unstudied’ cerebral-free prose, it may surprise readers, was the product of much meditative labour.) The colloquial, streetwise stories Joe tells are best given in a commensurately ‘strait-up’ and unvarnished medium. He is supreme notetaker of other’s philias and phobias; he speaks of essential things—mania, love, addiction, obsession—and must get at them with an essential language; he is about the marrow, more than the garnish. Leave other writers to loftier things; he writes of the human sole. To serve up these anecdotes in a cerebral, pedantic prose would be as incongruous as serving fish and chips on chinaware. It simply tastes better in newspaper. So it is with these crisp and vinegared tales.
I will not anticipate the plots and scenarios in Bibliomaniacs, as I would much rather you turn from this review to retrieve a fresh copy for yourself—signed, if you convey yourself to Halper’s to get it (situated down a partly-concealed passageway off the infamous Allenby street, no. 87, in Tel Aviv). Going to the source will give you this additional benefit: stay long enough, and you might be furnished with two sets of stories: the inked and bound set, and the intangible, unedited sort, which plays out each day in unique form between the aisles.
These street-view tales are particularly suited to their teller. Joe is as colloquial as his stories, an unpolished mensch who so happens to be able to furnish you with a G. Greene quote, a Roth anecdote, or a Maugham insight, spoken in an idiomatic tristate accent (strait outta Newark, and sprung in Springfield, New Jersey). The duality of the unsophisticated laborer of strait talk and pragmatism, and the man of letters, is enfolded in one nature—the Everyman who reads Everyman. His manner of autodidactic study is not methodical; he reads authors he likes (which may be righter in its way than restricting oneself to any official canon), trawling up arbitrary heaps of bookish knowledge along the way. This leaves him with a manner of speaking which can surprise by the words he knows, and surprise no less by those he doesn’t. Many a literary word felicitously employed will interlard itself between the rougher script of his New Jerseyan gaff. He is no smug Sciolist. Turtle-neck academia and the pretense to erudition repulse him. In his loose black T-shirt and comfortable slacks, you cannot accuse him of preacher’s hypocrisy. He is a melded organic excrescence of the roughshod and learnèd surroundings of his shop—or rather his shop is an extension of himself, he having built it book by book as houses are brick by brick. (The secondhand bookshop is a forever unfinished room whose owner is constantly redressing the walls. Refer to “How I became a bookkeeper” for the blueprints.)
‘Bibliomaniacs’, sensu strictissimo, refers to those with an obsessive impulse to the possession or hoarding of books for books’ sake. In this, Joseph Halper’s first collection of brief and pungent stories, it takes on additional, more oblique spheres of meaning and interpretation, containing as it does a human spectre of the maniacal and the skewed, all centered around the staid and unsteady setting of a used bookshop, and its life-abused patrons.