Non­fic­tion

All the Answers: A Graph­ic Memoir

Michael Kup­per­man

  • Review
By – April 8, 2019

In All the Answers, graph­ic nov­el­ist Michael Kup­per­man turns his tal­ents to a seri­ous sub­ject, his rela­tion­ship with his father, Joel Kup­per­man, who achieved a con­sid­er­able mea­sure of fame dur­ing World War II as part of the cast of Quiz Kids, a radio game show fea­tur­ing a recur­ring group of child prodigies.

Joel Kup­per­man was one of the youngest of the bunch, and there­fore had among the longest shelf lives of them all. A phe­nom­e­non who spe­cial­ized in per­form­ing com­plex math­e­mat­i­cal com­pu­ta­tions in his head, young Joel was cel­e­brat­ed from coast to coast.

His son’s book recounts the fas­ci­nat­ing his­to­ry of the pro­gram, whose cre­ator, Louis G. Cow­an (born Cohen), delib­er­ate­ly stacked the cast with Jew­ish kids to counter anti­se­mit­ic pro­pa­gan­da ema­nat­ing both from abroad and from with­in (most notably from the empire of Hen­ry Ford). Kup­per­man also doc­u­ments the sur­pris­ing extent to which the series per­me­at­ed Amer­i­can pop­u­lar cul­ture. Writ­ers as var­ied as Philip Roth, Nora Ephron, and the team behind The Adven­tures of Rocky and Bull­win­kle all found occa­sion to cite Joel Kupperman’s name in their works.

Not sur­pris­ing­ly, such fame came with a down­side. Even in the ear­ly days, the nation­al media hot­house was far from an idyl­lic envi­ron­ment, and the elder Kup­per­man, despite his bril­liance, was plagued by unhap­pi­ness through­out his life.

Here the book becomes some­what con­found­ing. As unsur­pris­ing as Joel’s own unhap­pi­ness was, it is also no sur­prise that he wasn’t the warmest father. And for this, his son seems par­tic­u­lar­ly unfor­giv­ing. He enter­tains fan­tasies of shak­ing his father out of the com­pla­cen­cy that plagues him, but to no avail. His attempts to con­nect are not helped by the fact that as he steps up his efforts, the elder Kup­per­man is slip­ping into demen­tia, which the author, in an espe­cial­ly dif­fi­cult moment, seems to inter­pret as an act of will, or at least a sub­con­scious reac­tion to his expe­ri­ences as a Quiz Kid.

The book nev­er makes clear whether the author’s resent­ment of his father was ulti­mate­ly resolved. In part, this is attrib­ut­able to its form as a graph­ic mem­oir. The nar­ra­tive is too sparse to allow the author to probe his mul­ti­va­lent sub­ject mat­ter with much depth. At sev­er­al cru­cial points in the nar­ra­tive, what actu­al­ly hap­pens is sim­ply unclear; for exam­ple, when Joel makes a brief come­back on a rigged TV game show in the 1950s, does he take a dive when he real­izes he’s part of a set-up, or go along with the ruse?

In the end it becomes dif­fi­cult to square the all-too-human fig­ure of Joel with the vil­lain his son wants to por­tray him as being. True, he was emo­tion­al­ly absent at home, as many fathers were in the 1950s. But at the same time, this emo­tion­al­ly stunt­ed egghead” had a long and dis­tin­guished career as a phi­los­o­phy pro­fes­sor. He wrote, he trav­eled, he influ­enced thou­sands of young minds (pre­sum­ably for the bet­ter). And while the author does con­clude by ask­ing whether his prob­ing may have done more harm than good, many read­ers may find the issue far less prob­lem­at­ic. All the Answers is an appeal­ing, if baf­fling, book.

Bill Bren­nan is an inde­pen­dent schol­ar and enter­tain­er based in Las Vegas. Bren­nan has taught lit­er­a­ture and the human­i­ties at Prince­ton and The Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go. He holds degrees from Yale, Prince­ton, and Northwestern.

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