Michael Wex is the author of Born to Kvetch. His newest nov­el, Shlep­ping the Exile, will be pub­lished by St. Mar­t­in’s Press next week. He will be blog­ging here all week for Jew­ish Book Coun­cil and MyJew­ish­Learn­ing.

Although St. Mar­t­in’s Press would prob­a­bly pre­fer me not to men­tion it, Shlep­ping the Exile, which comes out next week and would seem to be my newest book, is real­ly my old­est; the first ver­sion was pub­lished in Cana­da – with few­er pages and many more typos – in 1993. I can under­stand why a pub­lish­er might not want to call atten­tion to a new book’s hav­ing been avail­able as an import for twen­ty years; what scares me is hav­ing a book begun before the writer was thir­ty judged as the work of a man about to turn six­ty. Peo­ple might read a young man’s book as an old man’s – and in this kind of nov­el, it makes a dif­fer­ence. If I were start­ing it today, I’d write from the nar­ra­tor’s par­ents’ point of view.

But I start­ed it in 1983, after being invit­ed to take part in a sto­ry­telling show called A Night in Odessa. Nine­ty per­cent of what I knew about Odessa, I knew from Isaac Babel, and Babel, I was told, was already cov­ered; the oth­er sto­ry­teller on the show had called dibs. What they want­ed from me was forty-five min­utes of mate­r­i­al in Babel’s spir­it,” but not nec­es­sar­i­ly his neigh­bor­hood. They were more inter­est­ed in psy­chic than phys­i­cal ambi­ence – and in some­thing new, if at all possible.

So you want, like, orig­i­nal mate­r­i­al?” Forty-five min­utes of it, breezy and slight­ly transgressive.

Had my par­ents’ Eng­lish been bet­ter, Breezy-and-Slight­ly-Trans­gres­sive might well have replaced Yis­ru­el as my mid­dle name, but even for the breezi­est, forty-five min­utes of new mate­r­i­al isn’t some­thing you leave to chance, espe­cial­ly when there’s nowhere to run it in front of an audi­ence before the show goes up. I decid­ed to write the whole thing down, con­trary to my usu­al prac­tice, if only to have a map of where I was going and how to get there.

I came up with an ear­ly ver­sion of what even­tu­al­ly became the first forty pages of Shlep­ping, a faux-auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal piece about a teenage boy ten years my senior liv­ing in cir­cum­stances sim­i­lar to my own, but in the mid-50s, when I was a tod­dler, not a teen. I gave the oth­er sto­ry­teller a copy – a car­bon fresh from my type­writer – and he called me that night to tell me that he would­n’t cross the thresh­old of any build­ing where such filth was being pre­sent­ed, let alone allow it on the same stage with him. I threw it in the garbage and took the bag out­side. It offends me as a man, as a Jew, and as a human being.” 

And how do you tell the difference?” 

The oth­er sto­ry­teller hung up.

Much to my cha­grin, man­age­ment took his side. It’s a bit strong, Michael.” 

Jew­ish gang­sters killing peo­ple are less offen­sive than frus­trat­ed teens and lusty old men?” 

Can’t you just give us a folk­tale or some­thing? Some­thing a lit­tle more heartwarming ?”

I guess they’d for­got­ten about breezy and trans­gres­sive. I sat down and wrote the sil­li­est fake folk­tale I could come up with – They want folk­tales, I’ll give them flanken folk­tales” – about a pota­to kugel that talks. It, too, became part of Shlep­ping the Exile and has been anthol­o­gized a num­ber of times. 

I guess that’s what they mean by hav­ing to eat hum­ble pie.”

Read more about Michael Wex here.