“An Absurdist with a Sentimental Streak”

Timothy Schaffert pays tribute to the late Gerry Shapiro, whose story “The Last of the Cowboy Poets” appears in the current issue

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Gerry Shapiro was an absurdist with a sentimental streak. His fiction never warped so far into fantasia as the literary vaudeville of S.J. Perelman and Woody Allen’s early New Yorker stories, but he did practice his own brand of mordant slapstick. His urban and suburban worlds could almost pass for normal, and most readers can likely relate to his characters’ various predicaments–and, indeed, many of his finest stories were inspired by his own personal experience. What results from this mix of portraiture and comic distortion is not unlike Inge Morath’s series of photographs depicting everyday people in everyday poses, but wearing paper bags over their heads–paper bags with cartoon faces drawn by Saul Steinberg. The effect is sad and lackadaisical, charming and distressing, arrestingly artificial and profoundly human, all at once.

Gerry, my dear friend, colleague, and mentor, died on October 15, 2011, having polished up his last collection of stories only days before. That his final collection should be titled In the Jewish Cemetery makes it an even more heart-breaking farewell. The title story, the last in the collection, is among his least absurdist, centered straight-forwardly and powerfully on brotherhood, fatherhood, and a haphazard quest for legacy.

But many of his stories (in this last collection, and in his others: From Hunger, Bad Jews, and Little Men) are high comedy about men and women at low ebb. In “The Last of the Cowboy Poets” in the current issue of Prairie Schooner, Lenny Halperin, once a radio legend, takes a new job and new persona–that of Rusty Boltz, the latest in a long line of Rusty Boltzes, a radio cowboy who recites commonsense poetry. The new role means a much-needed source of income, but also humiliation, upheaval, and conclusions Lenny would rather not be coming to.

Though Gerry’s fiction often portrays characters caught-up in downward spirals of desperate motives, his short stories are nonetheless morality tales of a sort. But those characters who suffer most suffer because they are moral. They follow their hearts, the tugs at their souls. We watch these characters fall victim to their own vulnerabilities, desires, and curiosities. They make the mistake of taking risks, betting against the house, believing that, for once, they’d come into some luck. And sometimes, the most unfortunate among them believe themselves venal enough to succeed at corruption. But even at their worst, they are only ever sheep in wolf’s clothing.

Timothy Schaffert is the author of The Coffins of Little Hope, among other novels. He teaches at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and is a former Web Editor for Prairie Schooner.