“The Man Who Wanted to Buy a Heart”
Leonard S. Bernstein
University of New Orleans Press, $18.95
“The Man Who Wanted to Buy a Heart” is a new book of short fiction by Leonard S. Bernstein, who will be familiar to some readers of The Star, as his story “The Guided Tour of 7th Avenue” was previously published in these pages. The story benefits from the company of its companions: Mr. Bernstein’s collection is a cozy group of pieces that belong together. Here’s a suggestion: Read the collection in one or two sittings. It’s fun to do it that way, to let Mr. Bernstein’s voice and perspective claim an evening or two.
That voice is full of experience and without artifice; it is knowing rather than sophisticated, considered if not highly polished. His perspective is marked by a strong sense of ethics and a wry sense of humor charmingly given to exaggeration. Throughout, he observes the push and pull between the seriousness and the drollness of life.
Setting plays a large role in the collection, with a number of the stories taking place in New York City’s garment district, in an era at once bygone and timeless. Here is a passage from “The Guided Tour of 7th Avenue,” the stage-setting first story:
I have agreed to take you to the garment center, and we begin at 7th Avenue and 38th street where the cutters are milling around at lunchtime. I approach one of the cutters who has been here a few hundred years and say, “How’s business, Benny?”
“Terrible,” he answers. “Never in my life have I seen it as bad as this.”
That means business is O.K.
Also included in the book are several stories set in an unspecified past — olden times, or a removed, more intuitive era. These feel like old stories belonging to an oral tradition, and though you’ve never heard them before, something in you welcomes them home again.
A standout among these fable-like stories is the title piece, “The Man Who Wanted to Buy a Heart,” which begins thus: “When Reuben wanted to buy a heart he went downtown to see Markowitz, who dealt in all commodities.” The story won’t remind you creepily of organ trafficking — it will remind you that people want what they want. Here is clever and gentle commentary on human nature, a tale both charming and wise.
Other stories take place among modern-day, yet not quite exactly contemporary, men. There are men in business, men in competition, men who have been seized by unusual ideas and compulsions — upon which they act — and other men, naturally, who have bees in their bonnets about the actions of their fellow men.
In these pieces, the action takes place in a time a little before now — things hit the papers instead of going viral on the Net — but the action is also somewhat suspended from the timeline. The characters in these stories are buffered, held apart by the feeling — created by a sense of timelessness that develops throughout the collection — that they might just as easily find themselves as figures in an old yarn.
A highlight among these stories is “The Unusual Burial of George McNabe,” in which a man takes a notion about where he wants to rest in peace — under the elm in his front yard — much to the dismay of his neighbors. Also a favorite is “Nobody Beats Mason,” which takes place at a tennis club in East Hampton and is narrated by a man struggling to maintain his sense of himself and his ethical sense while coexisting with other men. And playing tennis. And contemplating the unwritten rules:
A lot of thought goes into the after-tennis conversation. For instance, let’s say you got badly beaten by a player who shouldn’t beat you at all. You don’t go around asking everyone else how they did. The result of asking is that you get asked.
. . . On the other hand, if you beat someone who you have no business beating, you naturally squeeze into a crowded spot and stir up an absolute whirlwind of tennis talk.
Each piece takes stock of human nature in some small way. Admittedly, some stories are more successful than others, but there’s strength in numbers here: The stories belong in a collection, and they work together toward developing Mr. Bernstein’s voice. You’ll find an honest point of view. You’ll find a prevailing sense of heart.
Leonard S. Bernstein lives in Woodbury and Amagansett.
Evan Harris, the author of “The Quit,” lives in East Hampton with her husband and two sons.