This wry, touching novel, The Grievers (The Permanent Press, 175 pages), takes an intelligent look at the meaning of friendship, a distinctly pertinent topic in an age when “friend” and “unfriend” are ubiquitous verbs referring mostly to people we’ve never met. It’s a novel of ideas that also dares to be funny, a dangerous strategy when so many critics see humor as a crime against literature. After all, doesn’t serious writing demand uncompromising hopelessness and despair?
Schuster’s slim but consequential work also tackles the lamentable triumph of irony in a world where people in the know say nothing that can’t be wriggled out of, usually by giving the words a sarcastic twist (an act I perpetrated in my previous sentence). To be part of this game that never seems to shut itself off, players must above all shun sincerity and celebrate distance. Their comments and ripostes follow one after another without ever touching base with commitment to an idea. It’s not always easy to climb out of this cynical syndrome, but Schuster has some suggestions. We see them in this loving parable kicked off in a most unlikely way — by the suicide of Billy Chin, friend and former classmate of narrator Charley.
Ten years after their graduation from a Philadelphia prep school, Charley Schwartz, who has to keep reminding people he’s not Jewish (though, he’s always quick to add that there’s nothing wrong with being Jewish), calls friends together to deal with Billy’s death and find a way to memorialize him. Many of them still hang around together. It’s archaically refreshing to see any such group stay together ten years past high school graduation. As Carole King pointed out, nobody seems to stay in the same place anymore. It makes The Grievers a kind of twenty-first century fable.
Some of the friends are closer to being enemies, but they can’t seem to escape one another. When Charley takes calls from them at work it creates a special problem because he has a batch of balloons tied to one wrist. His job consists of beckoning to passersby while he’s dressed in a green dollar-sign costume (he works for a bank). Yes, not all these spoiled preppies went on to become captains of global finance. Yet Charley has managed to find himself a loving, kindly, intelligent wife who teaches school and keeps the household together while he contemplates his unfinished dissertation.
Gradually we come to see that in many cases these “friends” spent their adolescent years tormenting one another, thrusting verbal rapiers at whatever chinks they could find in the opponent’s armor. And now Charley, spending his days inside the dollar costume on the lawn of a bank branch, is such a ready target he’s almost not worth teasing anymore. Yet, some of his classmates are even farther from career success. The inner lives of these distinctly interesting characters are gradually revealed as Charley considers whether bullies always remain bullies and why good guys don’t always prosper. They may even, as was the case with Billy, self-destruct to the point of early death. Charley, as he looks back at the way he treated sweet Billy, is forced to scrutinize his own life. Can he make changes before his wife finally gives up on him? Moreover, could his best friend Neil find happiness even though he’s been quoting Marx Brothers movies for the last fourteen years?
Along the way Charley accidentally (or perhaps not) hits the “send” button on one of the world’s most disastrous emails, reminiscent of Anthony Weiner’s crotch shot seen round the world and also of the plots of Thomas Hardy, a novelist who was fascinated by little slips that turn into monstrosities.
Billy’s death is not just a lever for Charley and his friends to peer into their own lives. It forces them to ask whether their friendships can survive. And as his memorial service approaches, they must stop and find out just who Billy Chin was. Life sorts itself out and new layers of meaning emerge. We ask along with Charley whether we can forgive our tormentors. Above all, can we forgive ourselves?
—Ivan G. Goldman’s author of Isaac: A Modern Fable, 2012.
“Charley Schwartz?” a gravelly voice asked when I picked up the phone.
“Yes?” I said as if I weren’t sure.
“Joe Viola,” the voice said. “Saint Leonard’s Academy. I’m calling about this Bobby Chang thing.”
“Chin,” I said. “His name was Billy Chin.”
“That’s the one. Were you thinking doughnuts or crudités?
“I’m not sure,” I said. “Doughnuts or–?”
“Crudités. Your buddy Frank suggested egg rolls, but that runs into money.”
“He’s not my buddy,” I said.
“In any case, he said you’re the point man on this one, so it’s entirely up to you.”
“Frank Dearborn is not my buddy,” I repeated. “You need to understand that.”
“So nix the egg rolls.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Nix the egg rolls. Nix everything Frank tells you.”
“That leaves us with doughnuts and crudités.”
“Fine,” I said. “Doughnuts and crudités.”
“You want both?”
“Why?” I said. “Is that wrong?”
“Usually it’s one or the other.”
“Damn,” I said. “How soon do you need an answer?”
“The sooner the better,” the voice said. “We’re on a tight schedule with this thing.”
“How tight?” I said.
“Three weeks,” the voice said. “Give or take a few days.”
“Bastards,” I muttered. “I’ll call you right back.
But I never called back. Instead I paced the living room, boiling with rage at Frank for commandeering Billy’s memorial service and leaving me to deal with shit that didn’t matter. Doughnuts? Crudités? How was I supposed to know? I wouldn’t know a crudité if I choked on one.