by Ronald McCloskey
Narcissus Leaves the Pool is Epstein’s sixth collection of articles that he subtitles “Familiar Essays.” Webster defines “familiar” as “well known by frequently repeated experience” but Johnson gets closer to the Epstein version of the word when he calls it “affable; easy in conversation.”
Affable and easy. Yes, that’s it. It usually takes less than a paragraph or two for Epstein’s warm prose to bring a smile to the face of the reader, and the same smile is there at the end. The only interruptions are the odd guffaw and the occasional nodding of the head in a “boy, has he got that pegged right” disposition.
If you are in the mood for political, social and economic criticism of the highest order, don’t read Joseph Epstein. But if you’re a middle-aged male standing half-naked in front of a mirror one day and want to know what happened to the hair that used to be on your shins, Epstein is the man for you.
In Narcissus, he will also help you understand Gershwin, treat about the years most of us waste—or not, yes most assuredly not—watching sports on TV, tell you whether you qualify as a grown-up, and give you the very latest theories on the art of the nap. Not to mention name-dropping, long and boring books, Anglophilic Americans, mispronouncing words, and first violinists in Chicago’s Orchestra Hall who wear green and argyle socks with their tuxedoes. And his essay on “Taking the Bypass” should be mandatory pre-op therapy for those about to have heart surgery. Goodness, it might even remove the need.
Epstein was born and raised in Chicago and has lectured in English and writing at Northwestern since 1974. For twenty-two years he edited The American Scholar, leaving that post in 1997. Each essay in this book, as in the previous five, first appeared in that review.
Narcissus is what I call peanut literature. It is hard to stop at this one book, and my bet is that most readers of Narcissus will immediately seek out its predecessors. Except those of us who are Epstein addicts, who have read those others over and over again, and who patiently await the next one.