My friend Samantha has been touting the work of Nathan Englander for a while now, and I finally cracked open his first collection of short stories, For the Relief of Unbearable Urges, last week. Even though the subject matter couldn’t be more foreign to me – many of the stories revolve around Hasidim, adherents of an ultra-orthodox sect of Judaism – Englander’s prose and his insight into human emotions are uncanny, especially given his age when he wrote many of these stories. He deftly blends humor into stories that get at serious questions like spirituality, gender equality, and finding hope in the hopeless.
The nine stories within the collection all encompass Jewish themes or characters, but range from World War II to a modern Hasidic community in New York and the aftermath of a bombing in Tel Aviv. The first story, “The Twenty-Seventh Man,” evokes the Night of the Murdered Poets with a story of the roundup of 27 Jewish writers in the postwar Soviet Union, a number that should have been 26 but mistakenly includes a shut-in writer whose work has never seen the light of day. “The Tumblers” reads like a fable, telling of the Jewish residents of a European city’s ghetto who are deported to a concentration camp but manage, however briefly, to stave off their fates by pretending to be a traveling circus of acrobats, a tragicomic story because you know it can’t really end well, but the individual moments are light even in extreme darkness.
My personal favorite in the collection, “The Gilgul of Park Avenue,” takes the concept of the gilgul, a belief of Jewish mysticism of the transmigration of a Jewish soul from one body to another, and turns it into a story that is by turns a slapstick comedy and a serious look at what happens in a marriage when the two partners have divergent spiritual beliefs. A nonbelieving Christian experiences an epiphany while riding in the back of a taxi in Manhattan: He realizes, or perhaps it just hits him, that he’s Jewish. And it’s not just a lark, as he rather quickly becomes orthodox, keeping kosher, adopting various rituals, seeking the advice of a sort of iconoclast rabbi who also believes in this doctrine of transmigration. The wife, however, is not having it, and tries to get her husband’s psychiatrist to talk sense into him, culminating in a painful, awkward dinner with the four of them (eating kosher) where Englander refuses to give us a true resolution, because there isn’t one: when two people disagree on such a fundamental issue, one that in this case would pervade most of their mundane lives as well as their spiritual ones, there’s no easy answer.
“Reb Kringle” is just what you’d expect – a Jewish man who bears a strong resemblance to Santa Claus reluctantly plays the part every December, until he meets the child who causes his hidden self to rebel against the subterfuge … and yet his overreaction doesn’t negate the truth of the injustice the child faces. The closing story, “In This Way We Are Wise,” goes in the other direction, ditching the comedy of the earlier stories to look at how ordinary people can survive living in an environment where terror is banal, ten brief pages that walk one survivor through the immediate aftermath of yet another cafe bombing in Israel.
Englander’s great gift is the intense realism of his dialogue – the spoken words, and the interior thoughts – of each of these characters, who seem so very normal because Englander can paint them quickly with broad strokes that hit the canvas with precise edges. The mentally ill Jewish father of “Reunion” could be a clown, or a nut, but in fact is a very regular guy with some sort of mania that is destroying his family. The central character in “Gilgul” is also run-of-the-mill, but even when what he says – like announcing to the taxi driver, “Jewish, right here in your cab” – is absurd, the voice, the scene, the specific words make it plausible. Englander’s fiction reads like fact because he writes people as people are.
Next up: More short stories, this time Edith Pearlman’s Honeydew.