Written as an attempt "to recover the silence of a family history," the breathless quiet imposed when 18 members of his immediate family "disappeared, violently, from the face of the earth" during the Holocaust, Joseph Skibell's extraordinary debut novel imagines the surreal postmortem adventures of murdered Jewish businessman Chaim Skibelski as he endures Joblike afflictions and wanders the cratered moonscape of postwar Europe in anticipation of the World to Come.
Skibell's magical story begins with an all-too-familiar ending (and ends with a surprising new beginning): The Jews of a Polish shtetl are rounded up by soldiers and marched into the forest, where they are shot and crudely buried in a mass grave. But lying among the bodies of his neighbors, Chaim Skibelski is seized with the giddy, ecstatic realization that he has somehow survived the pit. With nightfall he wriggles from the tangled embrace of his coreligionists and returns to the village, where the Catholic peasants have already laid claim to the abandoned property of the recently departed. When Chaim's attempts to prevent a family of peasants from moving into his former house on Noniewicza Street produce only a hissing of oaths and a flurry of superstitious crossing, he knows at last that he is truly dead. But if he is dead, why is he not in the World to Come? A black crow who has patiently observed this exchange from a nearby tree caws out a consolation "Be grateful.... Rejoice in your portion" and in this shrill cry Chaim immediately recognizes the village rabbi,miraculouslytransformed into a crow like the persecuted Schwartz in Bernard Malamud's short story "The Jewbird."
For a time Chaim and the Rebbe bed down in the vacant nursery, while Chaim musters the bile to assume the requisite duties of a poltergeist. His wounds mysteriously begin to bleed, and Chaim rattles throughout the house splashing every lintel and doorpost to remind its new occupants, the Serafinskis, of the price of their good fortune. Then one night the Rebbe flies off without explanation, leaving Chaim to watch in amazement as the orange disk of the moon falls from the sky.
Chaim awakens the next morning to the sound of screaming: Ola, the Serafinski's sensitive, tubercular daughter, is near enough to death herself to perceive his gruesome handiwork and suffers a relapse from the horror of it. In spite of the loss of his own daughters, or perhaps because of it, Chaim tenderly looks after the dying girl. He calms her with a story that pops into his head like a fairy tale out of the Mayseh book, a tale of two pious Jews who sail to the moon in a leaky boat and find an irresistible hoard of silver waiting for them. But once they load the treasure aboard their tiny vessel, the boat begins to sink beneath the weight and pulls the moon down with it. Comforted, Ola welcomes death as she would a lover and is spirited away in a chariot of fire by the Virgin Mary and her chubby "nebbish" of a son while the long-suffering Chaim remains, confounded, denied the comforts of the World to Come.
As if on cue, the Rebbe chooses this moment to return, announcing simply, "We leave immediately." Chaim stows a few precious mementos in a knapsack, and they set out for the forest to wake the dead. With a flutter of feathers and an incantatory squawk, the Rebbe summons the murdered villagers from their tomb, hideous in their advanced state of decomposition and reeking a moldy, humid stench. This mad procession shuffles southward as the crow flies, leaving a river of blood in their wake. Disgusted by his companions, Chaim strays from the congregation and is accosted by a decapitated German soldier who tries to exact Chaim's forgiveness for his sins, first by a show of force and then, failing that, through a pathetic display of self-pity.
"Little head," I say, "when you killed me you took everything. My home, my wife, my children. Must you have my forgiveness as well?"
Chaim rejoins his macabre entourage, pushing doggedly ahead until a glittering hotel is glimpsed on the opposite bank of a river. At first it seems that the Rebbe has indeed delivered them to paradise in the World to Come. But even after passing through the healing waters of the river and receiving the effusive welcome of the hotel management, there are some ill at ease with the German efficiency of the place. One skeptical Yiddisher grouches, "if there is a Paradise, do you think they'd let Jews into it?" By the time Chaim discovers the truth of this offhand remark it is too late. Once again he finds himself alone; not even his winged Rebbe remains to croak out Kaddish for him.
In the final, curiously touching section of the book, Skibell's hallucinatory parable within a parable comes full circle. Like a lost child in a märchen by Hoffmann, Chaim follows a luminous trail of pebbles to a hut in the forest, where he comes face to face with the meddlesome pair of Hasids responsible for the moon's disappearance and whose very existence he accidentally dreamed into being 50 years earlier. Through them the Rebbe's grand design is at last revealed, and in the new beginning of Skibell's conclusion, the true promise of the World to Come is fulfilled.