Famous all over Town is a Comically Candid Novel of the Small-Town South
Questions of, and Answers from Famous All Over Town Author Bernie Schein
No less an authority than your friend and best-selling author Pat Conroy (Princeof Tides) has called you “the funniest man alive.” But, he cautioned that you are the source of that superlative and have “dogmatically maintained” that title – as Pat has said – “during the burdensome decades I have known him.” How can you justify such immodesty? And, how does Pat Conroy justify calling the decades he has known you as “burdensome?”
Actually, I was the ghost writer for all of Pat Conroy’s books. Pat Conroy is really a pseudonym for Bernie Schein. For this, he hates me. Envy is the progenitor of hatred. And not only does he hate me, yes, as you may have guessed, he fears me. He needs my towering intellect, my nimble and agile creativity, my gift for language and okay — since we’re laying out the whole hand here — my always-tasteful flair for comedy, and he hates himself for it.
Pat’s projecting his sentiment onto me, he always does. He feels I’m the funniest man alive. Do I agree with him? Yes, but coincidentally, he really feels that way. He’s emotionally immature. He’s always had trouble taking responsibility for his feelings. So as he does with his characters, as he’s done with me as a character in his books — his best one, I might add — he projects his thoughts and feelings onto me. Who can blame him? He’s human. Were I him, I would prefer my thoughts and feelings over his. See what I’m getting at here?
The diverse and memorable cast of characters in Famous All Over Town includes Southern Jewish lawyer Murray Gold and his foil, displaced New York psychiatrist Bert Levy; emotionally scarred USMC drill sergeant Jack McGowan and his alluring and unconventional wife, Mary Beth; corrupt and adulterous sheriff Hoke Cooley, his deeply conservative wife, Regina, and their violent son, Boonie; African American madam and later city councilwoman Lila Trulove (also Hoke’s mistress), her brilliant daughter, Elizabeth, and her conflicted Harvard-bound son, Driver; fallen Southern belle-turned-voice-of-a-generation Arlanne Palmer; remorseful Vietnam veteran and flamboyant transvestite Royal Cunningham; and inspirational schoolteacher Pat Conroy. Are all of these, with the exception of Pat Conroy, real people in your hometown of Beaufort, SC?
Yes, all but Pat Conroy are real people.
Pat is a figment of my imagination.
Pat is real, and all others are figments of my imagination.
All are real, and all are figments of my imagination.
None are real, and none are figments of my imagination.
I am real, and I am a figment of my imagination; so are they.
I am unreal and have no imagination; so are they.
My imagination is a figment of my imagination.
It would have to be, wouldn’t it?
You are well known as an expert on middle school instruction and administration, and you have written two books on the subjects, the second one with your wife Martha. You hold a Master’s Degree in Education from Harvard University with an emphasis in educational psychology. You served as the principal of schools in Mississippi and South Carolina and helped found the independent Paideia School in Atlanta, where you were honored as Atlanta’s District Teacher of the Year in 1978. So, how did all this prepare you to write a novel that’s been described as “a comically candid multi-generational account of two Jews, a low-country native and a Northern transplant, at the epicenter of momentous events in the sleepy southern coastal hamlet of Somerset,” a fictitious stand-in for your native Beaufort, South Carolina?
Ah, a truly progressive classroom in which the highest standard is that kids be true to themselves so they can truly express themselves, means that they have to discover who they are, what and who they really want and need, and why. Who or what is in their way? What is their story? Who are they really? How do we best try and bring them out so they can truly and fully express themselves. In our classroom, it was the biggest bully in the class who closed the covers on Lord of the Flies, claiming boredom, when we began discussing Simon’s revelation. Simon is the character in Lord of the Flies who is imbued with spiritual human goodness and who later falls victim to characters who are bullies. “Maybe,” Simon says early in the book, “the beast is us.” The kids have taught me that, to one degree or another, we’re all bullies, victims and suck-ups. That knowledge demystifies and disempowers the bully and empowers the victim. Often, in our class, “Government and the Court System,” the victim would press charges against the bully for harassment, assault, social ridicule, you name it. And when a kid speaks up truly, through a story, poetry, speech, he speaks for just about everyone else. The victim then becomes the leader.
That’s also what happens in Famous All Over Town. Death, illness, romance, sex, ruthless ambition, failure, friendship and betrayal, greed and acquisitiveness, sibling rivalry, family relations, identity issues, unrequited love, abuse, violence, the history if the world is in the heart and soul, to one degree or another, of every child. So pardon me if I make the claim that my middle school classroom of seventh and eighth graders was a microcosm of the adult world, a glimpse into human nature and into the possibilities of community.
So is my town Beaufort in Famous All Over Town my middle school classroom? Maybe it is, all grown up! And who is the teacher? Why, he’s Dr. Bert Levy, the psychiatrist, of course! Everything he learned he learned from me, and everything I learned I learned from my students!
Tell the truth, Bernie, you’re Jewish yourself, aren’t you? And you grew up in a small southern town in one of the few Jewish families in that town, right? Do you see yourself as a fish out of water?
I see myself as a gefilte fish, in AND out of water. That’s the nature of assimilation. If I hadn’t gone with my parents to Harold’s Cabin in Charleston, I’d never have known what a gefilte fish was. Lox and bagels, pickled herring and gefilte fish were as anomalous to me as fatback and pork.
I’m a Jewish-Southerner, a real Jew down here in the languid, ever-flowing, river-breeze of the South where real men go through a crisis without a change of expression, where they, like Pat Conroy, back up their words with their fists, while I, like all Jews, back up my words with more words. Argument is tedious and tiring down here. In Protestant families, around the old dinner table, Reason, rather than Volume, prevails. Is that stupid, or what? Besides, show me a casual, easygoing Jew who can find the fuse-box or plug in an electrical cord without an explosion of anxiety, and I’ll show you an ulcer. Show me a photograph of a Jew with a record catch or a moosehead on his den wall and I’ll show you a Traitor to His People, a blatant sell-out, and a secret supplier of sheets to the Klan.
Let’s assume that your new novel Famous All Over Town qualifies you as an expert on Jewish humor. Let’s assume! So, what in your opinion makes Jewish humor so – let’s assume – funny?
As a student of the South and of how the Jew fits in as a Southerner, I found the answer to that question. It wasn’t long ago that Blacks, on family vacations during the era of segregation, had to travel halfway across the state just to find a service station that would allow them to use the bathroom. That’s a long time to have to hold it in.
Think about it. Black people were prevented by law from using most public bathrooms.
Jews in the South also couldn’t use public bathrooms. While the issue with Blacks was legal, ours was psychological. We couldn’t use a service-station bathroom because we were constitutionally incapable of it. We could have sat for hours on those toilet seats, and we still couldn’t have gone. Not because of the Jewish Condition – constipation, irritable bowel syndrome, etc., you know the gastro-intestinal issues that define who we are – no, not because of the Jewish Condition, just not in those bathrooms, because – FEH!!! – we couldn’t sit on those toilet seats. We couldn’t be anywhere near them. FEH!!! So, while Blacks became rebellious with the “Status No-Quo,” Jews turned to humor to explain that Farshtunkener feeling of “Status No-Go!”
Your first book, If Holden Caulfield Were in My Classroom: Inspiring Love, Creativity, and Intelligence in Middle School Kids, refers to the narrator and protagonist of J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. Is Famous All Over a sort-of Kvetcher in the Cotton?
Sure, it’s about insiders who are outsiders, outsiders who are insiders, the marginal, the misfit, the somebody, the nobody, everybody, and drunks and fornicators, my favorites.
The Jewish Southerner is as anomalous to the New York Jew as a Jewish wild game hunter, a Jewish Sumo wrestler, a Jewish hillbilly or a Jewish cowboy. Yet we were anomalous too to our fellow Southerners in the Bible Belt: Bill and Biff and Clyde and Will hunted, fished, washed their cars on Saturdays, and traded baseball cards. Irving and Myron and Mortie and Marty read books, listened to classical music, and argued with each other, all the time.
Why should Jews read Famous All Over Town? Why should Gentiles read it? How about atheists?
How about atheists! They should ALL read Famous All Over Town, so that they can become famous! See my point? There’s an opportunity here for everyone! Yes, you, goddammit, man! Get with the program! For 30 bucks, fame is yours. Is that not a bargain? Is this not the basement?
Famous All Over covers the period from the 1960s into the 1990s. How have lives in small Southern towns changed during that time, and specifically, how have the lives of Jews in small Southern towns changed? Are they still persecuted or prosecuted just for being Jewish?
Jews were only persecuted if they were Black. Sammy Davis Jr. would have never made it in the South. I mean, let’s face it, coming out as a Jew in New York wasn’t exactly a throwing down of the gauntlet to the status quo. Now back then, had he come to the synagogue in Beaufort? A horse of a different color, pardon the pun.
As for the town itself, it’s definitely changed. I saw Sammy in the synagogue just a few years before he passed away. Everybody smokes dope. Everybody fornicates with everyone else, out in the open! In the middle of the street! Nobody spanks their kids anymore, not when anyone’s looking at least.
Once banned in the Beaufort Schools, The New york Times is in every third driveway. You used to know everyone in town: everyone was famous. Now everyone’s from New York, at least a lot of the movers and shakers.
Beaufort’s gone from redneck to resort.