Eli Schwartz, the main character of Flatscreen, is not to be confused with author Adam Wilson. Wilson’s parents aren’t divorced. He’s never been rich. And the character of Schwartz is a bit sadder than Wilson, the author recently told a Jewish American Literature class at Temple University.
Flatscreen, Wilson’s first novel, is about a young Jewish guy, Schwartz, spending time in his basement rather than going to college. He responds to pop culture, his parents’ divorce — just about anything in life — with an attitude of “blah.” The story, filled with raunchy comedy, sees Schwartz befriend the wheelchair-bound sex addict who buys his family’s home and then become a more empathetic person as the relationship deepens and his world grows weirder.
Ruth Anolik, an adjunct English professor at Temple, said she selected the book as part of the course — which spans the literary tradition, including material from Emma Lazarus, Herman Wouk and Saul Bellow — in part because she thought students would see themselves in its characters. “I don’t feel that I’m chasing them away by providing a book that speaks to them,” said Anolik, who invited Wilson, a Brooklynite, to speak to her class. “I feel I’m bringing them in.”
After Wilson read the vulgar opening passage of the book in the class — it begins with Schwartz’s mother and the potential buyer of the family home walking into his room to find him in bed, wearing no pants and drooling — the author addressed the inevitable question about whether he felt a responsibility to portray Jewish people as good.
Wilson said that he, like fellow Jewish authors Philip Roth and Nathan Englander, focuses on telling a story, and not whether his work puts Jews in the best possible light. He doesn’t think the anxiety of “What will people think?” is as relevant now as it was when Roth published Portnoy’s Complaint in 1969.
“There was much more of a fear then that Jews were still in danger,” Wilson said.
In Flatscreen, Schwartz’s Jewish background is not presented as his defining characteristic, but rather one piece among many, like growing up in a typical American suburb — the story is set outside of Boston, which is where Wilson grew up — and being part of a generation that watches “TV for months, barely attentive.”
Wilson, 30, told the class he thinks of his being Jewish as a cultural identity, one that comes with reading Roth and watching Seinfeld, more than any type of religious affiliation. In Flatscreen, he writes both about the ways Jews continue to practice traditions — “Yom Kip’s the important one. Day of Atonement,” Schwartz’s brother tells him — and how Jews assimilate into the larger American society.
Schwartz says of his father, “Dad and Mark were poker buds. Old pals, the kind of new-money Jews who posed on sailboats and coughed cigar smoke just to prove that in post-ethnic America, everyone had the right to act like a WASP.”
Anolik, who also teaches at Villanova University, said the coarse language of the novel fits with the coarse culture her students live in. She wonders whether both Jewish culture and the culture of social media — which plays a prominent role in Flatscreen — will endure into future generations. She said she was flabbergasted when after reading the 1925 novel Bread Givers, which has a scene with a young girl selling herring, a brave student asked Anolik what that was.
“I grew up in New York, and I thought everyone knows what herring is,” Anolik said. Later, she brought in jars of the smoked fish for students to try.
Flatscreen was the final book on the course syllabus. Earlier in the semester, students read an essay by critic Irving Howe from 1977 in which he argued that the genre of American Jewish literature had no future, that as Jewish authors traveled further from their immigrant roots they would write as Americans, rather than as Jews.
In Flatscreen, Anolik said, students could see how the literary tradition had evolved, and she hoped, a viable demonstration that Howe had been a false doomsayer, that Jewish American authors are alive and well.
There were about 20 students in the class at Temple, and they were a mix of Jewish and non-Jewish students from a variety of backgrounds. Anolik said she expected mostly Jewish students to sign up for the course and was pleasantly surprised at the diverse makeup of the class.
Jordan Capizzi, a senior, is not Jewish but attended a Catholic high school where classes were cancelled on Yom Kippur.
Capizzi, who had a fair number of Jewish friends growing up in Lancaster, Pa., said he had an easy time relating to the characters in the book.
“What I was so captivated by was his attention to modern culture and a young person’s obsession with the Internet and television,” Capizzi said. Wilson did relate that to Schwartz’s “being Jewish, but those are things that transcend a particular religious background.”