In Julian Tepper’s debut novel, ‘Balls,’ Henry Schiller, a young lounge singer, has just been diagnosed with testicular cancer. Inevitably, one, possibly both, must be removed. It’s one of those sentences that no man, young or old, ever wants to hear. The diagnosis sends Henry into a down spiral of shame and depravity as he tries to make sense of his life and what could be his final few days in this world. There’s Henry’s much younger girlfriend, a violinist at Julliard who may or may not be having an affair with her professor; a record producer who stands in Henry’s way of producing a hit before time runs out; recollections of a former lover, an analyst (Henry’s own) who he becomes romantically involved with; and then there’s Henry’s neurosis, which may just end up doing him in.
Tepper’s narrative, funny and frantic, places him under the family tree of Bernard Malamud. There’s a calm tempo to the prose, and not just in the lyrics to Henry’s songs, which are themselves reflections of a life being cut short. One particular good number he composes is called “Castrated New York.”
Tepper’s New York City, in particular, seems to pop off the black and white movie poster of Woody Allen’s Manhattan. This is an uptown novel of analysts, doctor’s waiting rooms, pubs, parks, and piano bars. And watching Henry scramble in and out of each is darkly amusing while remaining purposefully humane.