The notion of writers “peaking” is a scary one. The notion of anyone peaking is really quite scary, but in the case of a fiction writer, to think that one could be capable at one point of writing a fantastic novel that actually resonates with people, and then never be able do it again, it’s frightening. To be a writer, and manage to convince yourself that you’ve got something to contribute to the world and succeed, only to realize as a certain point that you’ve lost your knack, well, I can think of a handful of preferable diseases.
I don’t know if Adam Schwartz believed that he had at some point peaked, but his story is unique. He published a story in the New Yorker in 1988, and then again in 1992. He’d had a big shot agent and a solid book deal, but only now, in 2011, is his book, A Stranger on the Planet, being released. What’s more, the route, by which it found publication, has become nearly mythological in this day and age: A Stranger on the Planet was discovered by readers at Soho Press in the slush pile.
A Stranger on the Planet is the life story of Seth Shapiro. We meet him as a young boy who, though interested in baseball, is most wrapped up in the world of his family: his mother, with whom he has an oddly sexual relationship, his father who left him for another life with another family, and his twin sister who understands him often better than he does himself. We see the many stages of Seth’s life, from his sexual awakening following a death-defying swim across a lake on the day of the moon landing, to his college years in which his girlfriend learns that she’s a lesbian. We follow him into adulthood where he works as a stand up comic and English teacher in Chicago and then into a tumultuous and ill-fated marriage.
It would be remiss not to mention how unflinchingly Jewish this novel is. Every adventure we experience as Seth is strongly grounded in the Jewish American experience. From his stint as the token Jewish in-law to his wife’s WASP-y family to his Orthodox brother Seamus looking constant disapproval of his lifestyle. At times reading this book, I found myself fantasizing about cultural relics of American Judaism’s past. Picturing this novel as it unfolded, glimpses of The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz and Seize the Day seemed to appear alongside the novel’s world. A Stranger on the Planet is the first great Jewish novel of 2011 and a book for outsiders of all stripes, one that serves as a reminder of how many chapters we all get.