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While in graduate school in the '60s, writer and Rice professor Max Apple lived with his immigrant grandfather, an irascible former baker in his nineties who kept busy while his beloved grandson hit the books. Fully able despite his venerable age, Herman "Rocky" Goodstein, a Lithuanian Jew who had emigrated to Grand Rapids, Michigan, in 1914, circled manual-labor jobs in the want ads when he wasn't preoccupied with finding a synagogue up to standards that even the dozens at which he had once davened on a trip to Israel didn't meet. An obstinate man of good, if hardened convictions, he lined up what he considered to be suitable friends for his son. While that idiosyncratic nurturing was appreciated, Max didn't take kindly to his grandfather's edict not to fall in love with a spirited fellow student named Debby. Though Rocky locked himself in the basement on the day of their wedding, Max nevertheless married the nice Jewish girl. Debby became Max's second "roommate," and after she gave her predecessor two great-grandchildren, Rocky came around. Then, in the late '70s, with the children in demanding prepubescence, Debby was fatally stricken with multiple sclerosis.
That's the territory Apple, one of Houston's best-known authors, explores in his new memoir, Roommates. What's remarkable about the book -- other than Rocky, the unforgettable five-foot, 110-pound patriarch with Methuselah's longevity and Popeye's strength -- is that it almost didn't get written. "I didn't think there was a book in this," says the self-effacing Apple, author of Zip, The Propheteers, The Oranging of America and Free Agents. "It was my grampa. And then there was my life, and I wasn't crazy about writing it because Debby was still alive in a kind of limbo." Though he's remarried, it's still hard for Apple to talk about Debby, whose death came slowly and with much anguish. "There will always be a lot of pain," he says. "I couldn't have written it much sooner. I think I wrote it when I could."
In 1987, Apple, living in New York and running out of money from a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship, sold an article about his relationship with Rocky to The New York Times Magazine. Hollywood came courting, and for the next two years he worked on a Roommates screenplay. That was finished in 1990, but by early this year, when the movie was finally shot, the screenplay had been through rewrites at the hands of others, and was no longer quite what Apple had first envisioned.
"The movie changed lots of things, and when the producer told me that it was definitely going to be made, it occurred to me that I'd like to have something more like the real thing on record," he says. In the film, Apple and his family aren't Jewish, Debby gets killed off antiseptically in a car crash, and the time frame is altered. Rather mind-boggling changes. And the reason Roommates also became a book.
Apple suffuses his memoir with the many bridges he built between himself, Rocky and Debby; between the children and MS; between himself and his grandmother; and between his grandmother and Rocky when they fought (one time they battled so feverishly that Rocky slept upstairs, with seven-year-old Max devotedly joining him, making them roommates for life). He also suffuses it with a sense of morality. What stands out is how good these people are. Through adversity and things meshugah they remain loyal to themselves, each other and friends in ways that give them a state of grace. To help ease his daughter out of her withdrawal following her mother's death, Apple signed on with the area Brownies, hoping she'd be interested. When she wasn't, Apple didn't make her join, yet stayed on himself, attending every meeting, going on field trips to pick bluebonnets, unwilling to break his commitment. In the '60s, a dear friend was paralyzed by a bullet at a rally; Apple took a year off from his studies to help him convalesce -- a mindfulness Rocky thoroughly agreed with and took part in. To ensure that Rocky would come live near him after he and Debby married, Apple took the Rice job because, out of all the offers he received, Houston was the only city that had an orthodox shul.
Though the second half of Roommates is, in many ways, a family memorial service in the face of MS, the story is Rocky's. Moments on top of moments stand out: the baseball enthusiast who bore a grudge against his hometown Detroit Tigers for trading Jewish slugger Hank Greenberg; the tireless employee of the American Bakery who, for years past retirement at age 63, worked what he called part-time -- 40-hour weeks. About this senior senior citizen, who no one ever seemed to fear would die, Apple writes, "It was as if his body had reached a certain point in aging and then gone on hold. He didn't remain young; he was more like a permanent 70."
When asked what Rocky, who lived to be 106, would have thought of Roommates, Apple straddles a boyish reverence and a sly insight. "I know exactly how he'd respond," he says. "I can tell you a funny anecdote. The one thing I had written about him before the 'Roommate' article was called 'American Bakery.' He was living when I wrote that. Once when I was bathing him, pouring a tea kettle of warm water over his head, I told him, 'You know, I wrote this article about you in The New York Times. Now everybody knows about you.' He gave me this angry look and said, 'Everybody always knew about me.' "
Max Apple will sign copies of Roommates at 7 p.m. Monday, June 27 at Brazos Bookstore, 2421 Bissonnet, 523-0701.