In Joseph Epstein's conclusion to Friendship: An Exposť, he states that he 'began with a vague sense that the standard idealization friends was somehow false to the truth of friendship.' Indeed Epstein does not, during the conclusion, the introduction, or throughout the novel, claim to have solved the riddle of what a friend is and what a friend is not; rather, he puts forth examples of friendships he has had, and examines them in an attempt to explain the varieties of friendship. This approach, while overall quite successful, does leave one with the sense that his book applies perhaps only to himself, or to the current age, or to an American, rather than being a grand, overarching discussion on the concept of friendship. Perhaps it would be impossible to write the final word on friendship, at any rate, that has not been achieved here.
Joseph Epstein is modest, but he has had many friends throughout his life. He recalls when he was a schoolboy how he would actively cultivate friendships with people from the different social groups, partly ingratiating himself, partly by being a 'good guy.' This ability to create friends is something he has carried with him throughout his life until now, when he is in his sixties (Joseph Epstein recently celebrated his seventieth birthday, but the point remains - here is a man adept at creating friendships). He began to realize, however, that, try as he might, he could not fashion an adequate definition of friendship that would include every single person he believed was his friend. On top of that, he had many different levels of friends, which he compares in a running metaphor as possessing different 'seats' in a football game, with the best seats going to the closest friends.
All of this is fairly obvious, and it is good novel that these points are raised in the introduction where they belong, rather than taking up space in the main thrust of the work. But what is literature, or indeed essays, about, other than in part the clear, concise explanation of what is obvious to us already, though we have never managed to articulate it so? Reading Epstein's introduction (and I have read most of the historical authors he mentioned who have written briefly on friendship - Aristotle, Plato, Montaigne, La Rochefoucauld), it became clear how necessary it is that we have a great book on friendship.
For what is friendship? We have friends we wish to see regularly. We have friends who we do not care to see, but enjoying talking on the phone with, or emailing. We have friends we don't see for years, friends from whom we live cities, states, countries apart. We have friends of the same sex, and we have friends of the opposite sex. Friends from similar social, economic backgrounds, friends with the same level of education, intelligence, wealth, prospects, political ideas, philosophical ideas, aesthetics tastes. We have friends who are the complete opposite of us in these areas. All of these things, and yet each one is a friend. What, then, is a friend? Epstein provides two dictionary definitions, neither of which suffice.
The main thrust of the book, then, comes from an examination of the different aspects of friendship as he sees them, using the particular lens that is Joseph Epstein's very own friends. He says that, 'My friends will recognize themselves in these pages...some to their pleasure, some to their chagrin, and a few to their strong distaste,' and it is true that some come off poorly, but most do not. Rather, it is Epstein who allows the probable guilt, the likely negligence, from the friendship. By using his actual friends as examples, Epstein has created a potentially dangerous exercise for himself; nonetheless, reading the collection never feels like a dirty exposition but a celebration, examination and critique of the different levels of friendships he has known. Even the 'sordid' tales - stories of friends who were not good friends, or friendships that end badly - are told with tact.
Epstein notes while explaining his methods for dealing with friends that, 'If this all sounds rather cold and calculating, this is only because it is - or at least it's calculating.' However, none of his stories but two comes across as anything but carefully explained with an eye for discussion, not blame. Examination, not airing dirty laundry. The first is a 'friendship diary', a record of a week's worth of activities involving his friends. This comes across as little more than boasting, which may be an unfair accusation against what is largely a tasteful, moderate book, but the comment stands. The greater point of the article in which the diary is placed would stand without this endlessly busy week of Epstein's. The second is a confused story involving Saul Bellow - presumably not Epstein's favorite person - and Edward Shils. At its core, Epstein chose Shils as his friend - or was chosen - and naturally became an 'enemy' of Bellow when the two older men had a falling out. Perhaps because Epstein is concerned with preserving his friendís reputation, and given Bellow's immense standing in American literature, Epstein's walking-on-eggshells way of explaining his story means, essentially, that we are left scratching our heads as to why it was told at all. The collection would have lost nothing by its omission and certainly has not gained from it.
Excluding these admittedly minor flaws, Epstein's work is intelligent, reasoned, well-articulated and entertaining. References to works ancient and contemporary are rife throughout, but never in a way that detracts from the experiences of readers who remain ignorant to the primary works. Epstein draws heavily from his own friendships, painting most of them with tenderness, care and consideration, and the wide range of his examination leave little left unexplored. Because the stories of friendship are mostly his, and thus not necessarily immediately identifiable to everyone, the book remains a collection of stories about Epstein. It rises above this due to his erudition, wit and willingness to examine what his friendships mean beyond what they are. At the end of the collection, no suitable definition for friendship has been found. We remain where we have begun, though now we have learned Epstein's take on friendship. His is not - and nor does he profess it to be - the last and only word in friendship. What it is, however, is a collection of intellectual examinations on a topic that should be, but isn't, exhaustively examined by literature. A beginning point, then.