NEUGEBOREN, JAY


NEUGEBOREN, JAY (Michael; 1938–), U.S. writer. He graduated from Columbia University, Phi Beta Kappa, in 1959. Originally and primarily a fiction writer, Neugeboren makes sense of the world by imposing narratives on it. In both his fiction and his later nonfiction, he fixes on a narrative thread running through events, following it even as it twists in unexpected and multiple directions. In whichever genre he chooses, Neugeboren is, in short, a teller of tales.

Early in his career, he told tales about invented characters, but with nonfiction he draws increasingly on his own experience. In Open Heart: A Patient's Story of Life-Saving Medicine and Life-Giving Friendship (2003), he describes the technology and compassion that saved his life as a quintuple-bypass patient. Without formal training in psychiatry, he questions in Transforming Madness: New Lives for People Living with Mental Illness (1999) the puzzling, asystematic system with which America cares for its mental patients. For over 50 years, Neugeboren has been caring for his brother Robert, who has been sporadically institutionalized for a mental illness that has been hard to diagnose and harder to treat. Abandoning polemics to argue for kinder, more inventive, more progressive, and just plain better treatment for the mentally ill, Neugeboren simply tells the stories of the colorful, often strikingly intense mental-health advocates and patients he met while trying to move his brother from one institution to another (and, finally, out of institutions entirely). Though filled with therapeutic and pharmacological detail, Transforming Madness is mainly narrated through the stories of these afflicted and driven souls. It is a passionate indictment told by a gifted raconteur.

Neugeboren tells his brother's story somewhat more intimately in his award-winning memoir, Imagining Robert: My Brother, Madness, and Survival (1997), and somewhat more obliquely in his fiction: in the powerfully inventive multilayered masterpiece The Stolen Jew (1981), one of whose plots concerns a writer's troubled relationship with his deranged brother, the characters are deeply connected and painfully estranged, often both at once. The recurring story of the two brothers, one quite mad, the other brainily rational, may serve as a synecdoche for Neugeboren's overarching interest in closeness and apartness.

The Diaspora is also omnipresent in his work, as a historical theme, as an ongoing development, and as a metaphor. Perhaps the most moving tale in News from the American Diaspora (2005) emerges in the preface, where Neugeboren describes his recent first meeting with an elderly cousin, separated from Neugeboren's family for nearly 60 years following the Holocaust. Those early postwar years were covered quite differently in his first collection of stories, Corky's Brother (1967), whose themes Neugeboren distinguishes from those in his second collection, Don't Worry about the Kids (1997): his early stories, he explains, concerned young people coming of age, "pastoral versions of growing up in Brooklyn, but these new stories are much more demanding of my reader…. If the Corky's Brother stories were pretty paintings, maybe you could think of these as woodcuts. The [1997] stories are more challenging, they're about grownups instead of teenagers, and their subject is mainly family life and things that threaten it, though the voices of the stories – and the settings – are more varied than my earlier work. Some … are ghost stories, of a sort, more like Cheever's urban fantasies than like Singer's." Moving beyond the appealing first-person narration employed throughout Corky's Brother, particularly in the title story, he noted one technical shift: "I'm able to be a little more expansive in third person, use more far-ranging images and metaphors."

Neugeboren's linguistic playfulness, using puns, stories within stories, jokes, dreams, and fantasy, has increasingly touched on the borders of traditional fiction. As prolific as he has been in other genres – he has written prize-winning screenplays such as The Hollow Boy (1991), children's literature such as Poli: A Mexican Boy in Early Texas (1989), and personal memoirs such as Parentheses: An Autobiographical Journal (1970), and has edited and introduced his brother's The Hillside Diaries and Other Writings (2004) and The Story of Story Magazine by Martha Foley (1980) – Neugeboren is a novelist at heart. In a 20-year period, he wrote six novels, varying widely and inventively in their descriptions of the life of the mind and the life of the body: Big Man (1966), Listen Ruben Fontanez (1968), Sam's Legacy (1974), An Orphan's Tale (1976), The Stolen Jew (1981), and Before My Life Began (1985); and he continued to write fiction in his retirement from academic life. From 1971 through 2001, Neugeboren served at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, as writer-in-residence and professor.

[Steven Goldleaf (2nd ed.)]


Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.