Ear­li­er this week, Ilan Mochari wrote about The Who and Jew­ish sum­mer camp and the auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal ele­ments in his nov­el, Zin­sky the Obscure (Fomite Press). He has been blog­ging here all week for Jew­ish Book Coun­cil and MyJew­ish­Learn­ing.

When it comes to 20th-cen­tu­ry Jew­ish authors, it’s Bel­low, Roth, and Salinger who gen­er­al­ly grab head­lines. But their imme­di­ate pre­de­ces­sors — Del­more Schwartz and Nathanael West—worked in an era that will always cap­ti­vate me. The term bygone time” gets tossed around a lot, but to read Schwartz and West is to tru­ly step into a dif­fer­ent Amer­i­ca — the Amer­i­ca of the 1930s — than the one that Bel­low, Roth, and Salinger chronicled.

For one thing, World War II had not hap­pened. For anoth­er, the tele­vi­sion had not yet tak­en over as a stan­dard domes­tic appli­ance. But the movies and radio were in full swing, for­ev­er alter­ing the way we con­sume words, images, adver­tise­ments, and sto­ries. Schwartz and West had to com­pete with these new­fan­gled media. In one of my favorite pas­sages from Miss Lone­ly­hearts, West, through the prism of that novel’s nar­ra­tor, laments how the noun dreams has lost its aura in this new era:

Although dreams were once pow­er­ful, they have been made puerile by the movies, radio and news­pa­pers. Among many betray­als, this one is the worst” (39).

Almost as bad, for West’s nar­ra­tor, is the way con­sumerism and van­i­ty have encroached upon dreams as a once-sacred trope:

Gui­tars, bright shawls, exot­ic foods, out­landish cos­tumes — all these things were part of the busi­ness of dreams. He had learned not to laugh at the adver­tise­ments offer­ing to teach writ­ing, car­toon­ing, engi­neer­ing, to add inch­es to the biceps and to devel­op the bust” (22).

There’s no way to prove that Schwartz had these pas­sages in mind when he wrote his leg­endary sto­ry, In Dreams Begin Respon­si­bil­i­ties,” two years lat­er. But if the title is mere­ly an unwit­ting homage to Lone­ly­hearts, the the­mat­ic over­laps are too pow­er­ful to ignore. To wit: Schwartz’s entire sto­ry takes place not only in a movie the­ater, but also in a the­ater that is the set­ting of a dream the nar­ra­tor is having. 

The movie depicts the clum­sy courtship of the narrator’s par­ents. The the­ater­go­ers are all along for the roman­tic ride, with the excep­tion of the nar­ra­tor, who dis­turbs the oth­er patrons with his protes­ta­tions: Don’t do it. It’s not too late to change your minds,” he shouts at the screen, after his father pro­pos­es to his moth­er. Nat­u­ral­ly, the the­ater­go­ers wish he would just shut up and let them enjoy the film. They’ve paid good mon­ey to see it (thir­ty-five cents, in 1935).

In many ways, Schwartz and West set the stage for The Catch­er In The Rye (1951), in which Hold­en Caulfield spends many a para­graph ridi­cul­ing the implau­si­ble ide­al­ism of main­stream Amer­i­can films. All of that — the march against phoni­ness — is gen­er­al­ly cred­it­ed to Salinger, and for good rea­son: His con­trar­i­an nov­el cracked the main­stream, giv­ing vent to hypocrisies that most read­ers felt but nev­er expressed. But let us remem­ber that when it comes to the movies — and their cor­rup­tion of dreams — West and Schwartz were there first.

Ilan Mochar­i’s nov­el, Zin­sky the Obscure (Fomite Press), is now avail­able. He is Chief Writer for The Build Net­work and a con­trib­u­tor to Cognoscen­ti, the online mag­a­zine for Boston’s NPR News Sta­tion. Read more about Ilan here.

Ilan Mochar­i’s debut nov­el, Zin­sky the Obscure (Fomite), is avail­able on Ama­zon, which earned rave reviews from Pub­lish­ers Week­ly, Kirkus Reviews, and Book­list. Boston’s NPR sta­tion has named it one of its Good Reads For The Sum­mer.” His short sto­ries have appeared in Key­hole, Stymie, and Ruthie’s Club. He is a con­trib­u­tor to Cognoscen­ti, the online mag­a­zine for Boston’s NPR Sta­tion. He has a B.A. in Eng­lish from Yale. He used it to wait tables for nine years in the Boston area.