The Twin Masks of Comedy and Tragedy With Peter Mehlman

Since you never know what will happen on a travel day, we didn’t set up anything special for our first night in New York, but, of course, that didn’t stop us from going out. After consulting listings for every kind of event imaginable, we decided on a reading, discussion and signing event at the Barnes & Noble close to our airbnb apartment on the Upper West Side.

Though the author, Peter Mehlman, was unknown to us, since he was listed as a producer on the TV show “Seinfeld” — and one who had written some of the most recognized episodes — I was curious to see how his particular sensibility might translate into a novel.

The evening began as Mehlman read an excerpt from his first novel, “It Won’t Always Be This Great”. And, as you might expect, it was pretty funny:

“When did being me become a full-time job? I know, it sounds unseemly to imply that you never considered yourself self-absorbed but, before the events I'm about to describe, I’d never given it any thought. So there you go, right? Maybe not.”

These “events” center around one unlucky episode where an unnamed first-person narrator, a middle-aged podiatrist who is walking instead of driving home from work on the Sabbath in an effort not to alienate his conservative neighbors and patients, trips over a bottle of horseradish and badly sprains his ankle. In a moment of pain and rage, he whips the bottle though the air and it smashes the window of a tween clothing store owned by a prominent man he knows.

Though he is aware that he has broken the window and is about to call 911 to report his crime, for once in his life he chooses the “non-menschy” option and instead limps from the scene and into a stray cab. The plot thickens when it turns out that the horseradish company is actively pro-zionist, and this unwitting act is seen as a hate crime worthy of prosecution to the fullest extent of the law.

The book unfolds as the narrator recounts this comic and absurd tale, which is a secret, to his college friend “Commie” who is lying in a vegetative state in a hospital bed after having been struck by lightning.

It was no great shock that excerpts Mehlman read were sharp and funny, but that was not what prompted me to buy the book. It was instead when he discussed the relationship between the protagonist and his wife, Alyse.

There was a point in the book, he said, where he wrote a joke at Alyse’s expense. The joke may be have been a good one — but he knew he couldn’t leave it in. He liked Alyse too much, he said, and the book, with all its absurdities, is also about a solid, happy marriage, which, he quipped, is so unique and original that it could be considered a whole new genre.

The story is told as a kind of caper, peppered with asides and anecdotes from the narrator’s mundane but increasingly convoluted life, with appearances by his strong but newly vulnerable wife, his two engaged and charming kids, a wise-cracking chiropractor and his high-strung Asian wife, a crazed and troubled young artist, a strange and varied assortment of podiatry patients, some questionable police officers and eerily competent FBI agents, and a dogmatic Jewish store-owner with his rabid, Orthodox son and flirtatious, candid 19-year-old daughter.

With the author’s penchant for snappy one-liners comes the potential for glibness or superficiality — but both are avoided in this novel, which deals lightly but effectively with deep and sometimes rare themes, like bravery vs. complacency,  struggling with the disappointment of aging, secrets vs. disclosure in intimate relationships, resisting the group’s pull towards conformity, Jewishness experienced as culture rather than religion, and the strange and life-altering influence of random luck or tragedy.

In fact, comedy and tragedy — those eternal twins — are both strongly in evidence in this novel, and in an interesting configuration. The comedy is boldface, with laughs on pretty much every page. But the tragedy emerges slowly and deeply, and is experienced as a profound sensitivity to, and fear of, the many faces of human pain, ignorance and misfortune.

This trajectory can be seen, for example, in the narrator’s relationship with “Commie”, his friend in a coma, who at first seems like a narrative device, or as an excuse to tell the story in the first person. But it becomes clear that Commie is not a lump in a hospital bed, but a cherished old friend. Though he never says it outright, the narrator finds his friend’s situation awful to the point of obscenity. There is loving concern for Commie, and some of his edgier jokes are told with the hopeful intention to wake him up.

There is no preaching in this book, but the narrator’s comedic perspective often centers around a moral dilemma or conundrum. He constantly wonders if he is doing right by Alyse, who he loves to the point of idolatry, if he’s raising his kids right, and what is the best way to negotiate the absurd situations he’s created and that life has thrown his way.

Though this book is blurbed by celebrities and bigwigs in the entertainment industry, during the discussion Mehlman mentioned that, in the end, it was published by a small company not governed by the tyranny of committees. Though he didn’t get too deeply into it, I can imagine that his book would not be easily labelled by the publishing powers-that-be, since it’s funny but also a crime caper, and touches on political and social issues but does not pander to anyone.

But I think Mehlman’s — and any author’s — genre-blurring uniqueness should be protected at all costs. Because an author’s world should be as distinct as a fingerprint. Though there are many so-called benevolent (and not-so-benevolent) forces that seek to mold and shape stories into “effective (a.k.a easily saleable) vehicles”, an author must seek to remain his own category, her own genre. Otherwise the unique judgement and perspectives a writer offers — in fact, the whole reason for writing a book in the first place — is lost in a sea of uniformity and blandness.

And that’s no comedy.

That’s tragedy.