In a 2008 essay in Harper’s Magazine, Vivian Gornick traced the slow development of the Jewish-American voice from the patois of ghetto sentimentality to the outsider yawp of Saul Bellow, making a claim on the latter part of that hyphenated identity, through to Philip Roth’s snarling to break free from the newfound assimilation. The voice is recognizable, she writes, by its “violent rush of words that announced the arrival of a narrating voice whose signature traits were a compulsive brilliance, an exuberant nastiness, and a take-no-prisoners humor edged in self-laceration.”
“At the heart of the enterprise,” Ms. Gornick continues, “lay a self-regard that made the writing rise to unmatched levels of verbal glitter and daring, even as its dangerously narrowed scope ruled out sympathy, much less compassion, for any character on the page other than the narrator himself.”
Where this project goes—post-Bellow, post-Roth—remains uncertain, but What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank (Knopf, 224 pages, $24.95), the newest collection of short stories by Nathan Englander, the 42-year-old novelist and playwright, may point a way forward. Here, the identities straddled are not Jewish and American, but Jewish and really Jewish. Fitting in with an alien and dominant culture is not a concern. What is, is what it means to be a Jew at a moment when so many make competing claims on the meaning of the word. Non-Jews seldom make an appearance in the world of these stories, and, when they do, they are almost invariably a menace in some form, or a lover not fit to take home to Mom.
Persecution lurks as a consistent if vague threat. And, everywhere, the Holocaust. It is as real to Mr. Englander’s characters as it was to their parents and grandparents, a grief unresolved, a warning still to be heeded.
“Deb is very interested in Mark’s parents,” Mr. Englander writes in one story. “They’re Holocaust survivors. And Deb has what can only be called an unhealthy obsession with the idea of that generation being gone … ‘Do you know,’ she’ll say to me and Trevor, just absolutely out of nowhere, ‘World War Two veterans die at a rate of a thousand a day.’”
Deb, meanwhile, is crestfallen when Mark recounts being in the locker room at his father’s country club when his father meets a man, who, like him, has numbers tattooed onto his arm. The numbers are entirely the same, except that the other man’s is three digits higher.
“So I say to my Dad, ‘He’s right ahead of you,’ I say. ‘Look, a five,’ I say. And yours is an eight. And the other guy looks and my father looks and my father says, ‘All that means is, he cut ahead of me in line. There, same as here. This guy’s a cutter, I just didn’t want to say.’”
In another story, a bunch of suburban school children are plagued by an anti-Semitic bully. They recruit a trainer, a former soldier in the Israeli army, who makes them watch a Holocaust documentary for motivation.
After the film, he turned the lights back on and said to us, yelled at us, “Like sheep to the slaughter. Six million Jews is twelve million fists.” And then he segued from fists and Jewish fighting to the story of brave Trumpeldor who, Boris claimed, lost an arm in the battle Tel Hai and then continued fighting with the one.
The gang troops over to the bully’s house and hurls a rock at his family’s bay window. It misses and hits the side of the house with “a great big bang. We fled. Still imperfect, still in retreat, we ran with euphoria hooting and hollering, victorious.”
In moments like this one, Mr. Englander achieves almost Roth-like levels of hilarity: the boys get their first self-defense class when they convince Boris to fight one of them. The poor lad gets the wind knocked out him, and asks how much.
“How much what?” was Boris’ answer. He displayed a rare tentativeness, which Larry might have noticed if he hadn’t been trying to breathe. “For the lesson,” Larry said. And here was the wonder of America, the land of opportunity. In Russia, if you punched someone in the stomach, you did it for free.