The film of his screenplay flopped. A collection of short stories was practically ignored. Ironically, many years later, when Lansky became required reading in courses in American Literature, the collection was considered a classic. He wrote a fine, miniature novel about baseball, and an uninspired tale of a writer with a pot belly and middle-age crisis. For years he seemed to be forgotten. At literary parties, he was invariably the center of some ugly, drunken brawl. Critics said what a shame. But Lansky surprised them all. With some great secret strength, he sat himself down at his typewriter and pounded out the best selling book of the decade – a savage satire of a Jewish mother who destroys the life of her artistic son with Jewish guilt.
Throughout the summer, on beaches and subways, everyone was reading Lansky’s book. More readers rushed out to buy it when the Jewish community called the writer a self-hating Jew. The paperback edition broke all records for sales. Lansky’s second marriage to a curvy Swedish masseuse, four inches taller than he was, made all the society pages. All of his works were reprinted, and any article he wrote, whether on politics, women, space travel, or fishing, netted him gold. In the very same year, he won the Book Critics Award, the Pulitzer Prize, had a child with his Swede, divorced her, moved in with a black soul singer, went through spring training with the Dodgers, starred for three weeks in an Off-Broadway play which he directed and wrote, had a small heart attack, and walked out of the hospital engaged to his Puerto Rican nurse.
In interviews, he talked about repentance and giving up marijuana and booze. He split up with his singer, bought a house up in Maine, and took the summer off to rest from his heart attack and relax with Juanita, his much younger caretaker. In September, he mailed three-hundred manuscript pages and a note to his publisher, saying that he was thinking of scrapping the rest of the book. It was a powerful Kafkaesque intrigue, set in a Soviet prison, the story of a loyal party worker exiled for being a Jew. Even conservative critics had to take off their hats. “A metaphor of the soul imprisoned by a fantasy of hope and poetic despair,” the New York Times critic called it. The Jewish community turned to embrace him. Prophetically, the plight of Soviet Jews became an international struggle. On the eve of his nomination for the Nobel Prize, E. Lane, born Lansky, stood in the doorway of his snowbound Maine cottage and announced his marriage to his housekeeping nurse. On the pinnacle of his great success, a Newsweek reporter braved his way through the snow to ask Lansky what he hoped to do now.
“Drink beer, watch TV, and have as many children as I can,” the writer said with a laugh.
In short, in his forty-eighth year, the novelist became an American legend. Pictures, posters, and stories about him appeared everywhere. He was either loved or hated wherever he went. When his wife ran off with a rock star, Lansky bought an island off Tahiti and lived there without electricity or plumbing for months. Then suddenly, he abandoned the role of the hermit and came home to run as an independent candidate for the governorship of New York.
Perhaps his defeat, or his chain of busted romances, or the prospect of turning fifty was responsible for his change. Or perhaps all of the whiskey and nightlife were simply wearing him down. Whatever the reason, the seemingly indefatigable novelist sunk into a lasting depression. The occasional pieces he published, while still graced with genius, were flat. Instead of writing about the world, he wrote about himself. Even his most faithful readers grew tired with the subject. His publisher tried to release his old sellers in fancy new jackets, but the public wasn’t fooled. Ephraim became forgotten like a racehorse laid out to stud. His fourth marriage to a Japanese poet passed without fanfare. The petite Oriental barely came up to his shoulders. “Ephraim Lane has finally found a woman with whom he can feel like a man,” his first, or was it second, wife said. Their betrothal lasted a little under a year. In the meantime, two stinkers were published bearing his name, a fat novel about a South American revolution which substituted detail for depth, and another collection of essays, short stories, and solipsistic pieces which almost no one bought.