Look at the tiny classifieds at the bottom of the New York Times’ front page and you’ll often find reminders to Jewish women to light their Sabbath candles. Lately, “King of the Jews” author Leslie Epstein has been using those little ads to light a bigger fire — with New York Times book critic Michiko Kakutani.
In the Oct. 29 front-page classifieds, Leib Goldkorn — the bumbling, unstable 94-year-old protagonist from Epstein’s latest novel, “Ice Fire Water” — implores the veteran reviewer to ring his bell: “Dear Sweet Michiko K. — Call Your Leib Goldkorn.” The indefatigable Goldkorn plans to send Kakutani another, more heated message on Monday, which will read: “Yoo-hoo! My Cute Kakutani! — Leib Goldkorn is calling.”
In Epstein’s latest novel, Goldkorn, a Holocaust refugee and novelist, is smitten by Kakutani, who gave him the most favorable review of his career. Goldkorn mistakenly believes that Kakutani, in reality of Japanese descent, is Finnish, and he fantasizes about being beaten by her in a sauna. At one bittersweet point in “Ice Fire Water,” Goldkorn invites Kakutani to lunch at the Court of Palms in New York’s Plaza Hotel to thank her for her review; when she shows up, the slightly deluded author mistakes her for a cleaning lady.
Epstein, however, does not share his character’s luck with the critic. He invited her to a reading in New York on Friday, but Kakutani — famous in publishing circles for her reclusiveness — didn’t show. “There was one Japanese lady there, but I don’t think it was her,” Epstein said from his home in Boston. (Kakutani did not respond to requests for comment.)
Epstein has spent almost $10,000 of his own money on Times front-page classified advertising for “Ice Fire Water.” The debut ad read: “Jewish Women/Girls. Gentiles Too! — Leib Goldkorn is back.” The ads have referred not only to Kakutani, but also to New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and former bathing beauty Esther Williams, who both make cameos in the novel. “The house was originally concerned that he was spending so much money on these ads when it could have been spent on more traditional venues,” says Robert Weil, Epstein’s editor at W.W. Norton.
Epstein, it seems, has hit on an imaginative strategy to lure Kakutani into writing a review of “Ice Fire Water.” However, although she praised his 1985 book “Goldkorn Tales,” so far, Kakutani isn’t biting. “He was very much hoping she would respond. He was very disappointed,” Weil said. As much trouble as Epstein may have in getting Kakutani’s attention, other reviewers have certainly taken notice. In the Los Angeles Times, Steven G. Kellman calls the novel a “masterly blend of the plangent and the preposterous” and Goldkorn “the Mr. Magoo of Holocaust survivors.” The New York Times Book Review lavished heavy praise on the novel — and also used a cartoon analogy for Goldkorn. “Leib owes more to Pepe Le Pew than Don Juan,” writes D.T. Max.
Other book critics at the New York Times might want to check out the novel for different reasons. “Richard Eder has a big speaking part,” Epstein said. “He’s a hustler phone sex guy. His name is Bitch Adder.” The late Book Review editor Anatole Broyard, whom Epstein characterizes as “the worst critic who ever lived, I think,” appears as Anatole Boudoir. Another Times critic, Richard Bernstein, turns up as Kakutani’s assistant who sends Goldkorn a note instructing him to meet Kakutani for that ill-fated lunch at the Court of Palms.