When the novelist Richard Stern died, in 2013, the headline of his Times obituary read, “Richard G. Stern, Writers’ Writer, Dies at 84.” Stern, who wrote dozens of books and was a fixture at the University of Chicago for decades, indeed earned the admiration of his era’s most eminent writers—as his book jackets attest, with comments from Bernard Malamud, Flannery O’Connor, Joan Didion, John Cheever, Norman Mailer, Saul Bellow. (Bellow’s blurb on Stern’s “A Father’s Words,” from 1986, reads simply, “The real thing doesn’t come along often . . .”) But, of course, the epithet from that obit headline is frequently just a nice way of indicating that an artist is minor. Stern was never quite famous. The press release put out by the University of Chicago when he died called him a writer’s writer, too.
Stern was closely associated not only with Bellow but also with Philip Roth—his bad luck, in a way, as such company would make most writers seem minor. One novelist I know loves to tell of his friend finding one of Stern’s novels at a used bookshop in Chicago, inscribed, in the author’s hand, to Bellow—an anecdote so perfect that it must be apocryphal. Now Roth has been enlisted to provide the introduction to a reissue of Stern’s novel “Other Men’s Daughters,” from 1973, newly published by New York Review Books. Rather than introduce the work, Roth has adapted remarks he gave at Stern’s funeral. He begins with how they met, in 1956, at the University of Chicago. Roth told the man a funny story over lunch and Stern said, “Write that, for God’s sake. Write that story.” Roth wrote it. It’s called “Goodbye, Columbus.”
Roth also had a few things to say about “Other Men’s Daughters” in his eulogy. The novel, he insists, “belongs side by side with the strongest of the books that have been written about the historical upheavals and extreme transformations that made so astonishing to the Americans who lived through it the turbulent decade—to be exact, the eleven years—beginning with the shock of President Kennedy’s assassination, extending through the horrors of the Vietnam war, and concluding with the resignation of that most devious of all devious commanders-in-chief, Richard Nixon.” It’s fulsome praise, but then, Roth was paying tribute to a recently departed and lifelong friend. When summarized, “Other Men’s Daughters” sounds like a parody of a novel by a mid-century man of letters: a fiercely intelligent man at midlife takes up with a pretty undergraduate, jettisoning his wife, their four children, and their comfortable life in a college town. This territory—the heterosexual male libido, the slow death of a marriage, the redemptive power of youthful feminine beauty—is so well-trod that publishing such a book, let alone reissuing it, feels like making another Spider-Man film.
But that’s more of Stern’s bad luck, I think: “Other Men’s Daughters” isn’t a novel about middle-aged sexual shenanigans. Roth overdoes it in his eulogy, but the book’s subject is in fact one of the “extreme transformations” that altered American life: divorce. It’s an elegy, really, for an American family, and maybe for the idea of the American family—an idea from an earlier time, when Nixon was the most devious of our commanders-in-chief.