Fat Jews: On Fat Jew and Thomas Pynchon’s Depiction of Nathan “Lardass” Levine

Thomas Pynchon published a short story – while an undergrad at Cornell University in the late 1950s – entitled “The Small Rain” whose main character is Nathan “Lardass” Levine. Pynchon makes him an endearing character who is not without his faults. Pynchon brings out his unique character by situating him within the context of military service and a mild skirmish or two with an anti-Semetic Lieutenant named “Twinkletoes” Dugan. It’s interesting that Pynchon doesn’t represent Levine as a weak or effeminate schlemiel type of character. He can fend for himself. Pynchon’s description of how Levine assimilates into the non-Jewish military crowd, however, shows that he is the “odd one out” (but not in the same way a schlemiel is since Levine is more masculine). Pynchon mixes tropes that suggest that Jews and Blacks in America share common physical and cultural ground:

Levine…was not quite ordinary.  He was one of the few men outside of those bucking for section eight who actually liked it at Ft. Roach. He had quaintly and unobtrusively gone native: the angular edges of his Bronx accent had been dulled and softened into a modified drawl; he had found that white lightning…was in its way agreeable as scotch on the rocks; he now listened to hillbilly groups in bars in the neighboring towns as replete as he had once dug Lester Young or Gary Mulligan at Birdland. He was well over six feet and loose-jointed, but what certain coeds at City once described as a plowboy physique, rawboned, and taut-musceled, had run flab after three years of avoiding work details. He had a fine beer belly now, in which he maintained a certain pride, and a large behind which he was not so proud of, which earned him his nickname. (Slow Learner, 28)

When “Twinkletoes” Dugan, the anti-Semitic Lieutenant, comes in to the barracks, Pynchon situates Levine on a bed reading a trashy novel entitled Swamp Wench. Levine slowly gets up once he hears that Dugan wants to speak to him: “Levine turned another page and started reading. ‘Hey’, the company clerk said. Levine smiled vaguely”(29).

Pynchon describes Dugan in a satirical manner and illustrates why he and Levine don’t get along:

There were a lot of…nice things about Dugan. He held as self-evident truths, for example, that the NAACP was a Communist cabal dedicated to 100% intermarriage of White and Negro race, and that the Virginia gentleman was in reality the Ubermensch, come at last, prevented from fulfilling his high destiny only by the malevolent plotting of the New York Jews. Mainly on account of the latter he and Levine did not get along well. (29)

Pynchon valorizes Levine’s fatness and his slowness in repose to Dugan and the military context (this depiction is similar to the slowness we find with Pynchon’s stoner schlemiel character, Doc in Inherent Vice):

Levine closed the book, folded it in half, rolled over and stuck it in his back pocket. He lay there for a minute or so within a cockroach follow some private maze across the floor. Finally, he yawned and dragged himself off the bunk, dumped the butts and ashes onto the floor and put the helmet liner on his head, canted down his eyes. (30)

Toward the end of the story, Levine leaves the barracks to go to a bar and meet a woman. The scene – in some way – seems to allude to James Joyce’s depicition of Bloom walking through the streets of Dublin:

He started walking, hands in pockets, whistling, heading in the general direction of the bar he had been in the night before. There were no stars and the air felt like rain. He walked through the street lit shadows of big ugly pines, listening to the voices of girls, the purr of cars, wondering what the hell he was doing here….and wherever he went he would be wondering this. (49)

This mediation turns into an odd reflection on being a fat American Jew without an identity:

He had a momentary, ludicrous vision of himself, Lardass Levine the Wandering Jew, debating on weekday evenings in strange nameless towns with other wandering Jews the essential problems of identity – not of the self so much as the identity of place and what right you really had to be anyplace. (49)

Even though these thoughts fall into the backdrop when he meets up with a girl in a bar, he becomes out of sorts when he is alone and naked with her in a bed.  Levine sees her response – as Kafka’s female ape in “A Report to the Academy” – as reflecting his estrangement. They both lay in the bed – body to body – “not touching”(50).

The next day, Levine is told that he can leave now, he’s an “extra body.” He puts his sack on his shoulder and drives into the rain. Pynchon makes “Lardass Levine” into a lonely figure. In the end of the story, he is a big Jew who walks into the “small rain.” His body – an emblem of his partially assimilated American Jewishness – sets him apart.  But the weather – and his sense of otherness – makes him small. His body can’t mitigate the sense of otherness that is, so to speak, in the atmosphere. Perhaps Pynchon is suggesting that the “small rain” reminds him of his Jewishness.

Reading this story, I thought a lot about the relationship of Jewishness to weight, today. It seems a little different. The Seth Rogen Josh Ostrovsky play, aka ”Fat Jew,” comes to mind. They throw their weight into the public image of Jewishness. (I have written about Rogen and Fat Jew’s use of the body before – see here and here.)

It is astonishing how Fat Jew has become over the last few years.  He has 9.2 million followers on Instagram, nearly a million likes on Facebook, and 296 thousand followers on Twitter. When he first started rising to celebrity, The New York Times ran a 2014 essay on him and while it noted his major accomplishments, it retained a little skepticism:

Given that Mr. Ostrovsky’s main oeuvre is a social media feed for which he mostly finds funny pictures or tweets on the web and reposts them with his own captions, his abilities as a live-action entertainer are untested. It’s an obstacle he is doing little to overcome. Mr. Ostrovsky refuses to join the stand-up circuit. “Why would I do that when I can roll myself into a giant burrito, take a picture and get paid?” he said.

One year later, he sunk into a controversy in which he was accused of stealing jokes (cutting and pasting them through his own portals). The Atlantic points out how this issue has evolved.

The debate over Twitter joke theft has escalated in recent years as people find more and more ways to monetize their feeds. Ostrovsky’s joke “curation” on Instagram (and Twitter, where he has 255,000 followers) might seem harmless, but he reportedly makes thousands of dollars anytime he endorses a product online, a smaller-scale version of the endorsement empire created by celebrities such as Kim Kardashian. Simply by taking a screenshot of whatever jokes were trending any given day, Ostrovsky somehow parlayed his way into a pilot development deal with Comedy Central, although Splitsider reported that the deal has fizzled out after huge protest from other comics.

The popularity of Rogen and Ostrovsky – by way of their bodies – is not an emblem of otherness. It is endearing. And it has a kind of ironic smallness to it. It is bound to make us smile. The President seems to find it funny, too.

While, with Pynchon, fatness and Jewishness has literary resonance, with them it has none.  That aside, now even Fat Jew is getting in on storytelling (albeit in a more popular cultural sense). It’s appeals to socially symbolic and popular figures is a little different from what we find in Pynchon. Even so, today, we know much more about Fat Jew than we know about “Fatass Levine.”  Fat Jew puts out a unique kind of male Jewish body in public space and by doing so opens up different ways for identifying Jewish (making it “hip”).*

  • What seems to be missing, however, in all these deceptions is a discussion of “Fat Jews” in terms of gender. How do Amy Shumer and Lena Dunham – who put their voluptuous bodies in the public eye – fit? Would they find offense in being called a “Fat Jew”? Lena Dunham doesn’t seem to find any problem with the display of the body in a manner that may offend some people. But is her display comical and affirmative in the same way that Fat Jew’s is? Would Dunham – like Fat Jew – find her identity as a Jew in her body or is it elsewhere? And wouldn’t the stereotypes be more in play with them? Since so many artists, writers, and filmmakers today, play on and try to transvaluate the Jewish body, this is a question worthy of more reflection.

Crossposted with Schlemiel Theory.


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