Lou Epstein, the eponymous narrator of “Epstein,” is having a hard time. At age 59, he finds himself experiencing a postmidlife crisis. His once-beautiful wife, Goldie, sags and nags; his daughter, Sheila, “a twenty-three-year old woman with ‘a social conscience!’ ” (205), and “her fiance, the folk singer” (203), fail to share his values; his brother and one-time business partner has become estranged, moving out of town “with words” (206); and the son who would succeed him, carrying on the family name and taking over the family business, died of polio as a child. When Epstein discovers that his nephew Michael, a soldier on leave from a nearby army base, is sexually involved with a young woman across the street, Epstein is driven to melancholy reflection over what was and what might have been; he takes Michael’s youth and vigor as a challenge, offering us an early glimpse at Roth’s most fully developed dirty old man, Mickey Sabbath of Sabbath’s Theater.
The story is full of shifting sets of opposing pairs. Epstein is contrasted with his brother, Sol. Epstein’s two children (Herbie, who dies at 11, two years before the age of religious maturity, and Sheila, the rebellious socialist) are contrasted with Sol’s son and daughter (Michael, the soldier, and Ruth, who is pretty and presumably obedient). Epstein’s character is also developed in relation to Michael, who seems to be a younger version of Epstein himself. Indeed, Epstein’s affair commences in what appears to be an attempt to compete with his nephew. Having discovered Michael’s relationship with Linda Kaufman, Epstein takes up with Linda’s mother, Ida.
Another important structuring device in the story is the biblical motif that runs through it, as Roth carefully blends elements of the Book of Genesis with the myth of the American Dream. Epstein’s concern with succession echoes the focal tension of the Book of Genesis, continuity versus crisis, as time and again viable heirs prove hard to produce (barren and/or elderly parents) and harder to sustain (murderous brothers and natural disasters). Hence Epstein’s despair echoes that of the patriarch Abraham: “Does a man of fifty-nine all of a sudden start producing heirs?” (205). Further, Epstein’s daughter Sheila and the folk singer (who remains nameless until two-thirds of the way through the story) fly in the face of Epstein’s hard-won American success; they are socialists and, as Epstein observes with typically American opprobrium, the singer is “a lazy man” (205). Epstein had pursued the American capitalist route to success with the Epstein Paper Bag Company: “He had built the business from the ground, suffered and bled during the Depression and Roosevelt, only, finally, with the war and Eisenhower to see it succeed” (205). His daughter the socialist, however, has no interest in the business’s fate. Clearly succession is in crisis.
In the face of such futility, Epstein finds himself picking up Ida Kaufman at a bus stop, joking with her, and soon enough, sleeping with her. When he finishes his first day with Ida by “squeeze[ing] a bill into her hands” (211), the exchange takes the quality of prostitution. Is Ida a concubine like Abraham’s Hagar? Or is she more like Tamar, Judah’s daughter-in-law, who orchestrates the continuation of his line by standing on a street corner and pretending to be a harlot? In either case, Epstein quickly discovers that he has contracted syphilis, marked by a telltale rash in his genital area. Epstein’s affliction is a symbolic one, in both the biblical and the American canon. “His blemish” (212) appears at the site of circumcision, the locus of the biblical covenant between God and Abraham (and all of Abraham’s male descendants). The redness of the rash further calls up images of the focal symbol of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, as it constitutes a bodily inscription of sin and of adultery in particular. In addition, the rash is a physical manifestation of Epstein’s metaphorical itch. His discomfort and dissatisfaction with his life—his desire to break free of his life’s monotony, to return to a time of greater promise, vigor, and hopefulness—is embodied by the “prickly heat” (212) he experiences.
When Epstein’s wife discovers the rash (and infers the infidelity), the ensuing confrontation continues in a biblical vein. Epstein and his wife confront each other “naked as Adam and Eve” (212), and Epstein quickly tries to cover his nakedness. When he drops “the fig leaf of his hands” (213), his wife recognizes Epstein’s indiscretions and begins assigning blame, leading to a screaming match. The shouting brings Sheila, the folk singer, and Michael running. Epstein invokes filial piety—“Respect your father!” (215)— but to no avail. During a physical confrontation, Epstein drops his sheet, “and the daughter looked on the father” (216), suggesting the sin of Noah’s three children, who viewed their father’s nakedness. The result is exile: Epstein is unceremoniously banned from his own bedroom. In spite of indications otherwise, Epstein insists on his innocence, trying to convince Michael, who nevertheless seems to view him as “Uncle Lou the Adulterer.” Epstein tells him he has no right to judge: “Who are you, what are you, King Solomon!” (220). This reference to the biblical king known for his wisdom is also a play on the name of Epstein’s brother and Michael’s father, Sol. Michael is not Sol; he is Sol’s son, and judge he does. Epstein’s exile continues as he finds himself supplanted by the folk singer, who is referred to by his name (Martin) for the first time in the story when he takes over Epstein’s accustomed Sunday morning tasks.
Paradoxically, Epstein’s downward spiral is halted by a catastrophe; he has a heart attack, and it soon becomes clear that this is the best possible thing that could have happened to him. Instead of banishing him and asking for a divorce, Goldie reaffirms her status as his wife. She assures him that Marvin and Sheila will marry and take over the business. And the young doctor confirms that if Epstein acts his age, the doctor can treat the “irritation. . . . So it’ll never come back” (230). One can only hope Epstein’s metaphorical itch will prove similarly responsive to his family’s intervention.
BIBLIOGRAPHY Roth, Philip. “Epstein.” In Goodbye, Columbus and Five Short Stories. 1959. Reprint, New York: Vintage International, 1993.