Liebestod, Opera Buffa with Leib Goldkorn is Leslie Epstein’s ultimate sequel to his risible life of Leib Goldkorn, now a spry 103 and contemplating suicide in the gas oven in his rent-stabilized Upper West Side apartment. I had high hopes for the comic relief of this book—and it came with the promise of humorous treatment of much that Upper West Siders hold dear: whitefish from Barney Greengrass—check; Renee Fleming—check; Luciano and Placido in the same opera—improbable at best but check; Gustav Mahler—check; backstage at the Metropolitan Opera—check; Jimmy Levine conducting said opera—check; enough Yiddishkeit to inspire spontaneous conversion—check.
It was funny, for about fifty or so pages. But then I was over the joke and, clever as the novel is, I plowed through the rest of it. Too insider, maybe. Too much priapic rambling. Lots of current events twisted, and then twisted again, into witty pretzels of repartee. Much ink devoted to the decelerated micturations of extremely old men. Predacious landlords, scheming villagers, misguided politicians and long lost Mahler progeny in miraculous possession of an undiscovered opera by the composer–all of it filtered through the inimitable lens of Leib. Just couldn’t sustain the grins.
I think it is a wonderful book for some readers who will admire its inventiveness and willingly eschew the virtues of moderation. But they are not me. Terrorists taking over an operatic performance worked brilliantly in Bel Canto (which is not a comedy but is absolutely memorable). Not so much here. Epstein has done his prodigious research—he gets every detail of the Met exactly right. He layers on history like nova on a bagel. He maintains an original voice throughout. I was impressed by the writing but, in the end, I didn’t enjoy it.
You should try the whitefish at Barney Greengrass–Amsterdam between 86th and 87th—legendary. But tackle the picaresque adventures of Leib Goldkorn with care. You might love it and chuckle out loud. Or not. I was relieved when the curtain (metaphorically speaking) came down.
Liebestod: Opera Buffa with Leib Goldkorn Leslie Epstein | W. W. Norton & Company 2012