For the Relief of Unbearable Urgesby Nathan Englander
In the collection's hilarious title story, a Hasidic man gets a special dispensation from his rabbi to see a prostitute. "The Wig" takes an aging wigmaker and makes her, for a single moment, beautiful. In "The Tumblers," Englander envisions a group of Polish Jews herded toward a train bound for the death camps and, in a deft, imaginative twist, turns them into… See more details below
- Checkmark B&N Discover Great New Writers Shop Now
In the collection's hilarious title story, a Hasidic man gets a special dispensation from his rabbi to see a prostitute. "The Wig" takes an aging wigmaker and makes her, for a single moment, beautiful. In "The Tumblers," Englander envisions a group of Polish Jews herded toward a train bound for the death camps and, in a deft, imaginative twist, turns them into acrobats tumbling out of harm's way. For the Relief of Unbearable Urges is a work of startling authority and imagination -- a book that is as wondrous and joyful as it is wrenchingly sad.
The Jews in Nathan Englander's short stories are mainly displaced persons. Some of them are the refugees one would expect to find in tales of the Soviet Union, the Holocaust and present-day Brooklyn. But most suffer a more intimate exile, dislodged from their own lives by causes mundane or miraculous hair loss, manic depression, reincarnation.
Location and dislocation are central to Englander's brilliant debut collection, For the Relief of Unbearable Urges. Despite their impressive range of settings and situations, the nine stories all fall within the terrain of Orthodox and Hasidic life. Englander never lets his treatment of this world become self-conscious or sound like travel writing; the Yiddish and Hebrew studding his pages are simply part of the landscape.
Instead he focuses on the tensions between his characters, their communal responsibilities and the spiritual and moral universe in which they move. The manic-depressive hero of "Reunion," for instance, resentfully depends upon his rabbi to mend the family rifts his manic episodes cause. In "The Wig," a faded Hasidic beauty yearns for the hair shorn from her head and regularly slips into Manhattan to indulge an obsession with "immodest" shampoo advertisements.
Recognizing the comedy that can accompany displacement, Englander displays a fine eye for situational irony. In "The Tumblers," a group of war-era Hasids boards a stalled circus train rather than the fatal transport to the east. Mistaken for acrobats, they desperately prepare a clumsy act only to be acclaimed by their Nazi audience as brilliant parodists of "Jewish ballet." In examining the layers of impersonation demanded by a cruel fate, Englander displays a rare originality.
Occasionally his sense of humor does drift toward Woody Allen territory. WASP financial analyst Charles Luger realizes suddenly that his body houses a Jewish soul in "The Gilgul of Park Avenue." The disruption to his life and the anguish of his Mia Farrowesque wife are amusing enough, but what saves the satire is Englander's ability to make his characters poignant. Describing Charles' furtive performance of Shabbos prayers, Englander writes, "He closed his eyes and thought back to his first night away from home, sleeping on a mattress next to his cousin's bed. He was four or five, and his cousin, older, slept with the bedroom door shut tight, not even a crack of light from the hallway. It was the closest to this experience, the closest he could remember to losing and gaining a world." This small book is full of such spare, haunting moments.
Although he's been compared to Isaac Bashevis Singer, Bernard Malamud and Philip Roth, Englander recalls for me and I mean this without irony the best of John Cheever. Even though his characters would never sit down at the same table with Cheever's, his invented Orthodox community of Royal Hills, Brooklyn, has a presence and an undercurrent of longing reminiscent of Cheever's suburban enclaves. Subtle characterizations, an instinct for detail and a sense of restraint already mark the 28-year-old Englander as a substantial talent in short fiction.
San Francisco Chronicle
Wall Street Journal
New York Times Book Review
Time Out New York
Talk Magazine's 10 Best Books of 1999
The New York Times Book Review
The pieces are set variously in contemporary Brooklyn Heights and Jerusalem, Nazi-ravaged Europe, and Stalinist Russia, and they feature such comically tormented characters as the title story's sex-starved husband, who is granted "relief" from his wife's extended menstrual cycle by the rabbi who sends him to a prostitute; a devoutly Orthodox Jew pressured by his materialistic wife into moonlighting as a department-store Santa Claus ("Reb Kringle"); and "The Gilgul of Park Avenue," an unassuming Wasp who inexplicably "realizes" he has become an Orthodox Jew-to the bellicose dismay of his astonished wife ("You threw out all the cheese, Charles. How could God hate cheese?").
As beguiling as Englander's comic tales are, though, his skills are even more impressively displayed in several pieces that strike more somber notes. "Reunion," for example, paints a graphic first-person picture of a manic-depressive Brooklynite whose travels in and out of institutions make a living hell of his marriage and fatherhood. "The Tumblers" fashions its fable-like story of an insular city that resists contact with the outside world into a trenchant allegory of all the stages of Jewry under Nazism, from denial through martyrdom. "The Twenty-Seventh Man" is unpublished writer Pinchas Pelovits, who finds his voice, and completes the work he was born to create, after he is mistakenly rounded up among a group of eminent writers doomed to execution by Stalinist thugs. And the concluding "In This Way We Are Wise" memorably dramatizes the emotions of an American Jew in Jerusalem imperfectly adapting to both ongoing terrorist bombings and the city's phlegmatic fatalism.
An exemplary fusion of what T.S. Eliot called "Tradition and the Individual Talent," and a truly remarkable debut.
- Knopf Publishing Group
- Publication date:
- Product dimensions:
- 6.00(w) x 8.72(h) x 0.96(d)
Read an Excerpt
By the time the latecomers had been delivered, the initial terror of the other twenty-three had subsided. The situation was tense and grave, but also unique. An eminent selection of Europe's surviving Yiddish literary community was being held within the confines of an oversized closet. Had they known they were going to die, it might have been different. Since they didn't, I. J. Manger wasn't about to let Mani Zaretsky see him cry for rachmones. He didn't have time to anyway. Pyotr Kolyazin, the famed atheist, had already dragged him into a heated discussion about the ramifications of using God's will to drastically alter the outcome of previously "logical" plots. Manger took this to be an attack on his work and asked Kolyazin if he labeled everything he didn't understand "illogical." There was also the present situation to discuss, as well as old rivalries, new poems, disputed reviews, journals that just aren't the same, up-and-coming editors, and, of course, the gossip, for hadn't they heard that Lev had used his latest manuscript for kindling?
When the noise got too great, a guard opened the peephole in the door to find that a symposium had broken loose. As a result, by the time numbers twenty-four through twenty-seven arrived, the others had already been separated into smaller cells.
Each cell was meant to house four prisoners and contained three rotting mats to sleep on. In a corner was a bucket. There were crude holes in the wood-plank walls, and it was hard to tell if the captors had punched them as a form of ventilation or if the previous prisoners had painstakingly scratched them through to confirm the existence of a world outside.
The four latecomers hadlain down immediately, Pinchas on the floor. He was dazed and shivering, stifling his moans so the others might rest. His companions did not even think of sleep: Vasily Korinsky because of worry about what might be the outcome for his wife; Y. Zunser because he was trying to adapt to the change (the only alteration he had planned for in his daily routine was death, and that in his sleep); Bretzky because he hadn't really awakened.
Excepting Pinchas, none had an inkling of how long they'd traveled, whether from morning until night or into the next day. Pinchas tried to use his journey as an anchor, but in the dark he soon lost his notion of time gone by. He listened for the others' breathing, making sure they were alive.
What People are saying about this
and post it to your social network
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
See all customer reviews >