RESPONSIBLE MEN

Edward Schwarzschild

Max Wolinsky comes from a family of mostly upstanding salesmen. On the eve of his son’s bar mitzvah, he returns home to Philadelphia, where he plans to put the finishing touches on a not-so-honorable business transaction and then disappear quietly back to Florida. Nothing, however, goes as planned. Coming home, it seems, means coming to terms with his family. It means facing the expectations of his father, the needs of his stroke-addled uncle, and the adolescent tribulations of his son. Honest, funny, and moving, Responsible Men is a portrait of three generations of men struggling to be good sons and good fathers in a world of big dreams and bigger temptations.

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Max Wolinsky comes from a family of mostly upstanding salesmen. On the eve of his son’s bar mitzvah, he returns home to Philadelphia, where he plans to put the finishing touches on a not-so-honorable business transaction and then disappear quietly back to Florida. Nothing, however, goes as planned. Coming home, it seems, means coming to terms with his family. It means facing the expectations of his father, the needs of his stroke-addled uncle, and the adolescent tribulations of his son. Honest, funny, and moving, Responsible Men is a portrait of three generations of men struggling to be good sons and good fathers in a world of big dreams and bigger temptations.

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  • Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
  • Paperback
  • 2006
  • 344 Pages
  • 9781565125438

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About Edward Schwarzschild

Edward Schwarzchild is a former Helen Deutsch Creative Writing Fellow at Boston University and Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University. He is currently an associate professor at the University of Albany, with a joint appointment in the English Department and the New York State Writers Institute. A finalist for the Samuel Goldberg and Sons Foundation Prize for Jewish Fiction, Responsible Men is his first novel. For more information on him or his novel, go to www.responsiblemen.com.

Praise

“Schwarzschild…writes with straight-forward affection of values and ethics lost and found…Max and his family are guys who not only grow, they grow on the reader.” — The Denver Post

“What determines the path we take in life? Is it genetic predisposition, the twists and turns of fate, the people we meet along the way? In Responsible Men. . . .Edward Schwarzschild examines these issues as he limns the path his central character, Max Wolinsky, has taken in the past and the choices he must make. . . .An insightful, well-told tale about the intricacies of human nature.” –Jewish Book World

Discussion Questions

This novel focuses on four generations of men (Solomon, Abe/Caleb, Max, and Nathan) spanning much of the twentieth century. There are many changes from one generation to the next in the Wolinsky family. How do these four generations of men see the world differently? At the same time, in what ways are they similar to one another?

The point of view shifts from chapter to chapter in Responsible Men—Max, Caleb, Abe, Nathan, and Estelle all have chapters from their point of view. How does this help you understand the Wolinsky family? What might the book have been like if it had all been told from Max’s point of view? Which point of view did you enjoy the most and why? What did you think when, late in the book, Estelle is given her own chapter?

Max Wolinsky knows he shouldn’t run the scam against the Goulds, and yet he tries to convince himself that he has good, justifiable reasons for his actions. After all, his father and his uncle need the money. What do you think of the moral compromises Max makes with himself? What separates a salesman from a con man? Do you believe that even people who haven’t been con men make similar compromises with themselves?

Before Nathan leaves for camp, he asks his father to tell him the worst thing he’s ever done (p. 198). Max answers him with a question. Why do you think he does this? What do you think is the worst thing he’s done? If you asked your father the same question, how would he answer? How would you answer your child?

Max’s ex-wife, Sandy, says that during their marriage she used to worry “about Max and what he was going to do next” (p. 95). But then she stopped worrying. “The worry doesn’t come,” she says. I just wind up angry” (p. 95). How do you understand what happened between Sandy and Max? Why did she become “angry”? Do you think Sandy and Hiram will stay together?

Though the book is called Responsible Men, there are many important female characters throughout the novel. Caleb is haunted by Naomi, Max loses Sandy and falls for Estelle, and Nathan gets his first kiss from Jennifer. How do these relationships shape the Wolinsky men? What do these men learn from these women?

Mervyn Spiller is a mysterious character throughout the novel. It takes Max a long time to learn whether he should trust Spiller or not. Do you think Spiller was trustworthy? Why or why not? What do you think motivates Spiller?

“…Solomon strides to the front door, hat in hand, as confident as ever, ready for another day of work. He turns to Abe. ‘Let’s go, son,’ he says. ‘It’s time. No rest for the middlemen.’ Abe doesn’t hesitate. He follows his father.” No rest for the middleman” is a saying that is passed down from one generation of Wolinskys to the next. How do the members of each generation use the concept of the middleman to mediate between their Jewish and American identities? How does this understanding alter from generation to generation? In what other ways are all the characters in this novel middlemen and middlewomen?