Premier character actor Stephen Tobolowsky offers a wide-ranging memoir in the form of a series of remarkable vignettes. He sees himself as a man of faith who remains a questioner, a man whose outlook involves an internal competition between experience and more formal modes of learning. Light doses of Torah and Talmud interact with memories of crises, illuminations, losses, and unalloyed satisfactions. Tobolowsky’s insights are often humorous, but never cruel. He takes us on a remarkable voyage – he is a sophisticated everyman, a committed yet somewhat restless Jew, and a profound and fluid storyteller.
The overall story could be accurately labeled “The Making of a Mensch.”
In telling his stories, Tobolowsky draws amazingly efficient portraits of those who meant the most to him: his parents and children, his first and second wives, his second-grade heartthrob, close friends, and rabbis and others from whom he gained understanding and solace. As a man trained to inhabit a character, he has an instinct for the telling detail. As a man trained to deliver his part of a scripted conversation, he has an ear for recreating the vivid and meaningful conversations of times gone by.
The vignettes are grouped into several sections whose titles reinforce Tobolowsky’s development as a committed member of the Jewish community. You will recognize the echoes: Beginnings, Exodus: A Love Story, The Call, Wilderness, and The Words That Become Things. Within these sections, which hold between five and eight stories (in some cases linked stories), Tobolowsky displays his marvelous ability to draw meaningful comparisons between the distant past, today, and stops along the way. Though the plan is primarily chronological, it is not always so. Sometimes, episodes are linked by association rather than by chronology. Sometimes, it is necessary to proceed backwards.
The author shares with us his interests and his explorations of books both sacred and secular. He attests to the importance of dreams in his life, which he tells us “whisper rather than roar.” He is a man open to epiphanies. He is a man open to the mysteries of science and the possible parallels, if not necessarily links, between scientific thought and religious experience.
Tobolowsky’s use of the word “adventures” in the title suggests an attitude of openness, of seeking and accepting challenges. The book has a humorous tone. Throughout, it is this humor that floats the friendly scholarship, serious intent, and occasional desperation of an exemplary seeker. This book is good for the Jews. It’s good for those who appreciate wonderful stories.
Philip K. Jason is professor emeritus of English at the United States Naval Academy. A former editor of Poet Lore, he is the author or editor of twenty books, including Acts and Shadows: The Vietnam War in American Literary Culture and Don’t Wave Goodbye: The Children’s Flight from Nazi Persecution to American Freedom.