Never Say Never Again: Nathan Englander Wrestles With Bellow, Roth and Carver

 

Then there is the story of the octogenarians at a Catskills-eque summer camp for the elderly, who become convinced that one in their midst, Doley Falk, a killer at the bridge table, was one in real life as well, half a century before—a Nazi guard at one of the camps they were sent to in their youth. Never forget, as the saying goes, and they scheme to get up a little Warsaw Ghetto Uprising on the unsuspecting Mr. Falk.

In the world Mr. Englander has constructed, if the Nazis don’t get you, your fellow tribesman—or your personal portion of collective guilt—will. Thus a Manhattan businessman, who has changed his name from Feinberg to Fein, can find himself face to face with a murderer’s row of his Hebrew school rabbis when he stumbles into a Port Authority peep-show joint. Two elderly settlers can find that the fate of one of their daughters relies on the wisdom of rabbis and the slipperiness of the ancient texts, in a story that, in its setting and plot, owes more to Paul Bowles than to Roth or Bellow.

The title story is an homage to Raymond Carver, and if a Jewish-American writer must come to grips with the likes of Bellow and Roth, for any American short-story writer the standard is Carver, whose spare, Edward Hopper-esque landscapes populated by broken-down characters dominated MFA programs—and thus the form—for years after he wrote them in the 1980s.

But Mr. Englander’s voice is far too ironic to take the master seriously.

Carver’s iconic story, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” is about two couples sitting at a kitchen table, sharing an afternoon and a bottle of gin. In Mr. Englander’s, two women, friends from their Orthodox girlhoods in Queens, reconnect after many years. One, Lauren (who insists on going by “Shoshana”), ran off to Israel and turned Hasidic, raising 10 girls with her husband, Mark (or “Yerucham”), an enormous man who, except for his black hat, could pass as a background singer for ZZ Top. The other, Deb, has gone in the opposite direction, moving to Florida and, with her husband, the narrator of this tale, raising a son, Trevor, whom, now a teenager, Mark takes one look at and says simply, “He does not seem Jewish to me.” It’s identity one-upmanship’s dagger-in-the-heart.

“A lot of pressure, I’d venture, to look Jewish to you,” Deb’s husband says. “Like say, maybe Ozzy Osbourne, or the guys from Kiss, like them telling Paul Simon, saying, ‘You do not look like a musician to me.’”

In this tale, however, it is not a bottle of gin the quartet commune over but a bag of weed Deb finds in Trevor’s room. They talk, like their predecessors, of the meaning of love, but really, of trust. How could Deb keep knowledge of Trevor’s pot habit a secret, her husband wonders? What other secrets is she hiding?

But, since this is Nathan Englander and not Raymond Carver, the question of hiding comes down in the end to a game of who would do for you as the Gies couple and a few other people did for Anne Frank.

This book received rapturous blurb-work from all the right people—Michael Chabon, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers et al.—and most of it is well-deserved, even if there is perhaps one too many dream sequences or flights of postmodern fancy for this reader’s taste. In these stories, Mr. Englander has a tendency to square his narrative circles with overwrought moralizing or sentimentality, but the stories are so tightly wrought, the sentences laid out so cleanly, the dialogue so real and the humor so self-lacerating that one is inclined to forgive him.

If Mr. Englander is in fact the future of Jewish-American prose, then that future looks to be a far more moral and compassionate one than the writing of the recent past. The scale and the stakes may be smaller, and the language less daring, but the humor and the brilliance, and the investigation of cultural identity, are all still there.

dfreedlander@observer.com

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