By Sabina Mollot
After penning a satirical novel about America’s most unsuccessful Jewish family – despite their many schemes, including a basement bialy racket — Warren Alexander began hearing from readers around the world who felt they were reading about their own relatives.
“A woman from South Africa said, ‘This is my family,’” recalled Alexander. “A friend from Spain said, ‘Are you writing about us?’”
The Stuyvesant Town resident, whose book, Cousins’ Club, was self-published earlier this summer, said he was surprised at how universal the story seemed, considering much of the humor comes from distinctly Jewish cultural references. Not to mention, the pressure within the Jewish culture to succeed, particularly in a financial sense.
“You have 5,000 years of success. Freud, Einstein, Karl Marx, who have changed the fabric of society,” said Alexander. “Not only do you have to be successful for yourself and so your family will be proud of you but you have all these people, like Sandy Koufax and Steven Spielberg. There are only 14 million Jews worldwide, but Jews are 20 percent of the Nobel Prize winners. So you have that extra burden.”
His initial title for the fictional work was Dead People Are Annoying. However, Alexander decided to change it after worrying it would be mistaken for yet another novel about zombies or vampires. The title he changed it to, Cousins’ Club, describes the situation around the story’s main character, a child raised in Brooklyn in the 1950s by different relatives for one year at a time by order of the family matriarch — his grandmother.
It’s in a last-ditch attempt to bring success to her family, that the grandmother consults mystical texts, resulting in her determination that the next child to be born into the family will be a genius. However, since she doesn’t feel the baby’s parents, or the rest of the kin, are smart enough to raise a genius alone, she decides the best course of action is to pass the child around. The adoptive parents include a blind grandfather who thinks a butter knife covered in burnt cheese is his handgun, a couple who run numbers — and the aforementioned bialy business — out of their grocery store and cousin Tummler, a completely unfunny comedian. The name of that character comes from a particular breed of comic, typically Jewish, called a tummler, who would work in resorts in the Catskills entertaining people on and off the stage. Then there’s the father, who invents things that already exist.
The humor, noted Alexander, mostly comes from the family’s lack of self-awareness. “Those people don’t know what’s preventing them from being successful,” he said. As for the plotline of passing around a child, Alexander said he didn’t realize, until after the book was written, that this may be relatable to many because it’s similar to situations often faced by immigrant families, though not usually by choice.
He said he decided to go the self-publishing route after two small publishers he’d almost struck a deal with didn’t work out. The first one to express interest in the book was so disorganized in its dealings with him that Alexander decided to continue to shop it around. The second publisher, however, lost him when he was sent a contract that was dated February 31. “I figured they can’t proofread if they can’t even get the date right,” he said. Another publisher praised the book, but declined to take it on. “He said, ‘This is very funny, but I don’t know how to sell it,’” recalled Alexander. So he went about it on his own, and has since had a chapter he submitted to a short story contest published in a literary publication called Cutthroat, a Journal of the Arts. He’s also gotten mostly positive reviews on Amazon and at readings he’s done so far.
Alexander, 67, always wrote short stories though this is his first book and he has a master’s in writing from New York University. He said he’d been thinking of writing the book since his retirement 10 years ago from a career in the insurance industry, which included drafting policy. He is already working on his second book, also satirical, with the working title Success is Not an Option.
“It’s my revenge for working for 45 years,” he explained.
Alexander has lived in Stuyvesant Town for 20 years with his wife, Andrea Fagin.
Cousins’ Club, available on Amazon, is $10, $3 for the e-book.