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BOOK REVIEW

Love, loss, and solitude in the old neighborhood

By Sam Allis
Globe Staff / June 14, 2010

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It’s a rare and welcome thing to find a collection of short stories that define a place. In “The Love Song of A. Jerome Minkoff,’’ Joseph Epstein delivers one about a neighborhood on the far north of Chicago called West Rogers Park. It is a polyglot area, but Epstein has chosen to write about the Jews who dominate it. He grew up there as one, and his mastery of it is complete.

The title is an obvious play off T.S. Eliot’s poem, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’’ in which a fragile, solitary man wonders what to do with his life. Many of Epstein’s characters face the same challenge.

They are older men who have lived all their lives in the neighborhood. They nosh at the Ashkenaz Deli on Morse. Milt Kuperman refers to his fellow “GJs,’’ German Jews, he sees at concerts. They went the Senn High School together in Edgewater, a neighborhood just to the south.

Some are widowers, often financially secure after years of hard work. They venture out after 40 years of marriage to the dating scene, terrified and clueless. Work defines them, and they are shaken by the prospect of life without it. They are generally men of integrity with shrewd takes on life learned on the streets.

This is Epstein’s third collection of short stories, following “Fabulous Small Jews.’’ He has written novels like “Snobbery: The American Version’’ and edited the American Scholar between 1975 and 1997. For many years, he has taught English at Northwestern University.

In the title story, Jerry Minkoff, a successful general practitioner closing in on 64, has been a widower for three years since losing his wife to ALS. He mourns that they were unable to have children and displays no particular interest in dating another woman.

Then he meets Larissa Friedman, a pretty, vivacious widow in her early 50s from LA who turns out to be filthy rich. They have a lot of sex, and she drags him to high-end cultural events like opera. One night in LA they go to a fancy restaurant with her friends. His share of the bill for the two of them is $680.

“I have to tell you, I’m not a $680-a-dinner guy,’’ Minkoff tells her. “It’s not that I can’t afford dinner like that from time to time.’’ But, he adds, “Spending that kind of money for a meal isn’t, in my opinion, respecting it.’’ He then breaks off the relationship.

There is a world of sadness among Epstein’s Jews. One widower meets a woman who introduces him to classical music. She hauls him to concerts and he learns to love it, until she tells him one day that her breast cancer has returned. As she gradually fades, he asks, “Is there anything I can do? Is there any place you want to see, in Europe maybe?’’

But it’s not all bleak. Yet another widower finds himself attracted to a middle-age check-out woman at a supermarket. She lacks beauty and sophistication, but her straight talk and warmth seduce him. And it’s not all serious either. Epstein describes a man as “one of those types who’ll attribute an ice cream headache to the evils of capitalism.’’

If his voice is wry, it is also sympathetic. Life is hard, and he knows it. He invests his collection with a peerless take on a particular slice of Jewish life today. Each story stands strong as a discrete work, but together they become profound.

Sam Allis can be reached at allis@globe.com.

THE LOVE SONG OF A. JEROME MINKOFF AND OTHER STORIES
By Joseph Epstein
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 272 pp., $24