BOOK REPORT: THE OTHER SHULMAN
The Other Shulman
If I recall (a contingency only a fool would underestimate), there was a class I took in high school called "The Nature of Man" taught by the esteemed English department head and tennis coach Brooks Goddard, he of the dashikis, the Volvo wagon, and the one cigarette a day habit. The reading list included Crime and Punishment, MacBeth, Sanctuary, and Heart of Darkness - heavy-duty stuff even for a senior. As usual, I had trouble keeping up with the reading, probably because I was too busy going to Worcester to see the
Joe Perry Project at E.M Loews or driving lap after lap of what became known as the Fat Circuit from Bailey's Ice Cream in Wellesley to McDonald's in Needham to Store24 in Newton. Despite the distractions, I was drawn to Mr. Goddard's ultimate question: "Does Man have free will?" That is, do we live the lives that the universe conspires to hand us, or do we determine our own path unfettered by outside influence? As you can imagine, for a kid on the cusp of adulthood who simultaneously felt repulsed by the insipid blandness of mainstream adult society (aka, "the normal life") and yet somehow certain that happiness lay waiting to be discovered somewhere in my future, Mr. Goddard's question couldn't have been more relevant. Lacking direction, passionless except for my Led Zeppelin, Hendrix and Ozzy bootlegs, I was just aware enough to see that if I did have free will, then the sooner I started exercising it, the better, lest I sign for and accept the standard-issue life and nothing more.
As soon as the question was posed, I had a pretty good idea where I came down. But I felt it was important enough to warrant some deliberation. So I deliberated on my way to see the Kinks at the Centrum, I deliberated as I did doughnuts in the Babson Reports parking lot, and I deliberated while I carried bags of housewives' groceries out to the Benzes and Jaguars outside Roche Brothers.
Yes, we have free will. Each of us determines through a series of choices which life we ultimately live. Some choices are big and have more impact. Should I marry this girl? How will I support myself? Should I have children? Some choices...not so much impact, but impact nonetheless. This was my answer.
So granted, Alan Zweibel may have been preaching to the choir as I read his new novel, The Other Shulman this week. Nevertheless, I found myself captivated by this tale of a man who, sodden by the comfort and wrinklelessness that the steady routine of his life affords him, retreats into a mid-life chrysalis and emerges to recognize not just his self-inflicted limitations, but his remarkably expansive potential as well.
Shulman is a middle-aged stationery store owner in Fort Lee, New Jersey. Outwardly, he's very content in a routine that keeps time chugging along, demarcated only by the ever-revolving stock of holiday cards in his store. But Shulman's got problems. His feet of clay have disappointed his wife to the point where they live sexlessly. He weighs 248 pounds. To top it off, a mega stationery store called Stationeryland is opening soon on the other side of town. These circumstances and the situations they produce force Shulman to get up off his considerable ass and fight for the kind of life he knows he deserves. Described here it sounds trite, but through Zweibel's born-and-raised-a-New-Yorker pen, Shulman's struggles are treated with a soothing balance of humor and pathos that reassures the reader that life itself is constantly teaching us how to live. The paths are laid out right in front of us, but it's up to us to choose the ones that will bring us the happiness we seek.
My eyes and skin and brain are twenty plus years older than they were when Mr. Goddard asked, "Does Man have free will?" and although in general I stick by my original answer, I have learned that fate, destiny, the stars, luck, whatever you want to call it, does play a big role in the lives we lead. Not a day goes by that I don't find myself thinking about how lucky I am. There’s no way I'm entirely responsible for all of my good fortune. Back in the eighties, fresh out of college, my friends and I were told that finding a job takes a certain amount of luck, but we were encouraged to "make our own luck" which sounds like fodder for a lame Successories poster but I must admit I've seen just that happen time and time again. In The Other Shulman, one of the characters advises Shulman with a quotation from Goethe: "At the moment of commitment, the universe conspires to assist you." I believe that's true. Or do I choose to believe that’s true?