It has been nearly 13 years since the publication of Nathan Englander’s brilliant debut, For the Relief of Unbearable Urges, an ambitious story collection written by a twentysomething Jewish writer raised in a religious community in suburban New York. The stories, infused with the wisdom, authority and authenticity of an old-world master, were not written in Russian or Yiddish like those of his literary forebears, Isaac Babel and Isaac Bashevis Singer, but in a precise, unadorned English that is both amazingly fresh and hauntingly familiar.
What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank ((his first novel, The Ministry of Special Cases, was published in 2007)) returns to the same fertile territory as Englander's first book of stories. Religious Jews in crisis, the ephemeral nature of the written word and, most pointedly, the enduring trauma of the Holocaust are explored with abundant humour, tenderness and heartache.
The past is never dead in these stories. In fact, to borrow a phrase from William Faulkner, the past is not even past. The collection begins with the title story, a lengthy homage to a Raymond Carver story. Englander’s updated version involves two couples, one secular, the other deeply religious, around a kitchen table in suburban Florida drinking, smoking marijuana and debating the idea of what it means to be a Jew.
The story meanders, lacking the tight structure of the rest of the collection, and finally takes a turn when the ultra-Orthodox male guest equates intermarriage with the Holocaust, “the one that takes more than fifty per cent of the Jews this generation.” The female host is suitably horrified, and the seed is planted. It is soon revealed that she has spent her life fearing a second Holocaust, playing the “Anne Frank game,” first as a young girl and later with her husband to determine “Who Will Hide Me.” Unfortunately, the story is overshadowed at every turn by Carver’s unsettling masterpiece, and Englander is never able to achieve the devastating effect he desires.
Englander is at his best when he allows his substantial storytelling talents to operate within a tight, focused narrative.
Free Fruit For Young Widows movingly illustrates how the aftershocks of the Holocaust ripple through time. It is told in large part as a story within a story: A Jerusalem vegetable merchant explains to his young son how his friend and fellow Holocaust survivor becomes a killer. This is not an eye-for-an-eye revenge fantasy, nor is it a study of evil, but a touching look into the life of a deeply damaged soul in the aftermath of the “unimaginable brutality of modern extermination.”
Sister Hills is an epic political fable centred on two mothers who, “in the way of the old country,” agree, in order to save a sick child from the Angel of Death, to a bargain that turns out to be as much a curse as a blessing. The tale, as much as anything, is a powerful parable about coveting what is not yours, a message that will resonate with those who disagree with Israel’s settlement policy on the West Bank.
The collection may sound heavy, freighted as it is with painful history, but many of Englander’s stories are laugh-out-loud funny even as they are deadly serious.
Peep Show features a successful young lawyer with a deracinated name who has turned his back on Judaism and married a blond Gentile woman who buys him a candle with a picture of Jesus on it for his father’s yahrzeit. On a whim, he attends a peep show on Manhattan’s 42nd Street and is confronted by the rabbis of his youth, who demand to know “what makes a nice boy forget God?” In true Woody Allen style, the lawyer sees his mother in stockings and garters onstage: She asks, “Do you need some tissue, Ari?”
Camp Sundown is equal parts hilarious and horrifying, as senior-citizen Holocaust survivors at a summer camp for the aged believe they recognize a Nazi among them. This is as much a story about the fragility of memory as about the eternal need for justice, and the senior vigilantes’ foibles only underscores the irony in the phrase “Never forget.”
The funniest (and saddest) story is The Reader, about a once famous writer and his last reader, in a world (our world) in which bookstores are more often frequented for their coffee shops than their books.
Nathan Englander continues to be a master of the short story. I only hope that another 13 years do not pass before his next collection.
Jonathan Papernick is the author of the story collections The Ascent of Eli Israel and There Is No Other . He teaches fiction writing at Emerson College in Boston.