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Alan Cheuse: My cousin, my best friend

Author and NPR commentator Alan Cheuse.
Author and NPR commentator Alan Cheuse.
Josh Cheuse

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Alan Cheuse, who died last Friday at the age of 75,  was more than the man who delivered something like 1,200 pitch-perfect book reviews for NPR for more than a quarter of a century. Alan was my first cousin and a best friend.

I miss Alan's laughter, his wit, his good-natured gossip, and his bear hugs. A big Russian bear, but to be sure, a teddy bear, defying our raw Russian roots. Alan was the elder child of my father’s younger brother, but he took the name Cheuse, our grandmother’s maiden name, rather than Kaplan, because our paternal grandfather had abandoned the family in the turmoil of a roiling anti-Semitic Russia.

My father was subsequently swept up into the Czar’s army, World War One, followed by the revolution, but come the red-white civil war he had enough, deserted, and wandered west to Paris, where he became a tailor. 

Meanwhile, his brother, Alan’s father Fishal, became in time a captain in the Red Air Force, but in the 1930s crashed his fighter into the hostile Sea of Japan and was saved. But instead of returning to a Stalinist Russia where our family was being purged, he ended up in Shanghai, flying air mail for the nationalists, until the Japanese attacked China .

To his rescue came my father, then relatively safe in New York City. He sponsored Alan’s father’s immigration to the United States. But his flying days were over, for the FBI deemed him a security risk. So he scraped by working as a radio repairman in New Jersey, and got married. Into this hard-edged world came Alan in 1940, five years my junior.

Alan always found comfort in books, and excelled at Rutgers. At graduation, he turned down a job with the New York Times where I was, to travel and write. We all envied his confidence,  although taking exception to the depiction of the family in his memoir, “Fall Out Of Heaven,” which traced his Dad’s life in Russia and after.

Alan continued to write, more and more, and to teach. His workshops were legend. There also were friendships with writers -- I remember us hanging out with Bernard Malamud and Richard Ford, and would-be writers, too. And he did those NPR reviews, somehow capturing the essence of a complex book in exactly two minutes and twenty seconds on the nose, every time, for which Alan was justly proud.

As the years went on, we talked less and less about the family’s thorny past, and more about our present families and current projects, and what was for dinner. This adhered to the family adage that the mark of a survivor was not to look back, but to live in the moment.

Alan did just that. He lived every day. He was immortal ... until he was not.

Sam Hall Kaplan is an architecture and design critic, formerly of Fox 11, the LA Times, and the New York Times.