In his spectacular debut story collection, 28-year-old Nathan Englander portrays the human condition in all its wisdom, folly, exuberance, and sorrow, with a compassion and understanding rarely shown by so young a writer. The nine stories in For the Relief of Unbearable Urges are set within the insular world of Orthodox Jewry and range from Nazi-occupied Europe to Stalinist Russia to present-day Israel and New York. But if Englander's focus is sharply trained on the Orthodox community in particular, his themes are universal. "I have no interest in a fiction that isn't universal," he says. "If it's not universal, then it's not functioning."
Like Bernard Malamud and Isaac Bashevis Singer, to whom he has been quite deservedly compared, Englander is intimately connected to his characters and the world they inhabit. He was raised in an Orthodox Jewish community on Long Island (he now lives in Jerusalem), and by his own admission, he had a "right-wing, xenophobic, anti-intellectual, fire-and-brimstone, free-thought-free, shtetl-mentality substandard education." But when the men in charge of his religious education were unable to satisfy his basic theological questions, Englander began to look elsewhere for answers: "I began to read literature," he says. "Simple as that." Later, he started writing because "it was the one thing that I had the tools for. The single available outlet. If we had a decent blowtorch at home, I might be a welder or an industrial sculptor or a pyromaniac."
The collection begins dramatically with "The 27th Man," a brilliant story-within-a-story in which Stalinsecretly orders the apprehension and execution of 26 eminent Jewish writers. But Stalin's overzealous henchmen do their job only too well, and a 27th man, an unpublished dreamer named Pinchas Pelovits, is added to the list. Unperturbed, Pelovits spends his final hours in prison composing a fable about faith and denial, a valedictory masterpiece that he recites for his literary cellmates in the moments before facing the firing squad. Englander wrote this story after learning of a historical incident in which 26 people were executed (many, but not all of them, writers) during Stalin's purges. "From the time I first learned about the killings I dreamed of writing these writers a final story, providing them with a fictional end. It's not a political story to me. It's a story about identity, with a very political setting."
Englander sustains both the technical skill and the emotional power of this opening story throughout the collection. "The Gilgul of Park Avenue" puts a deliciously comic spin on the term "midlife crisis," when a 55-year-old WASP comes to the realization that he is the bearer of a Jewish soul and trades in his psychiatrist for a renegade rabbi from California. In "The Wig," a Brooklyn wig maker trapped in a thickening body and a passionless marriage decides to recapture the glamour of her youth by making a wig for herself. And though she nearly ruins her business and her reputation in order to purchase a handsome young deliveryman's gorgeous mane of hair, the result is "worth every penny and every shame." The subversively irreverent "Reb Kringle" finds a devoutly Orthodox Jew pressured by his wife into moonlighting as a department store Santa Claus -- with tragicomic results. "The Last One Way," which brought Englander national exposure when it was featured in The New Yorker earlier this year, is the story of a lonely, bitter, and unhappily hirsute woman who blackmails the matchmaker responsible for her loveless marriage so that he, in turn, will terrorize her belligerent husband into granting her a get. Set in Israel, the title story plays out the conflict between carnal desire and spiritual obedience through the long-suffering figure of Dov Binyamin. Sexually frustrated by his wife's self-imposed celibacy -- a condition she attributes to an interminable menstrual cycle -- Dov is granted a special rabbinical dispensation "for the relief of unbearable urges" and ordered to see a prostitute. But, predictably, Dov refuses to wear a condom ("It is a sin to spill seed in vain") and is rewarded for his scrupulous adherence to Scripture with a shameful venereal disease.
Though Englander has been criticized within the Orthodox community for portrayals such as these, he handily dismisses such narrow-mindedness. "My characters are often flawed and often Jewish. I don't see how this should be made scandalous. Flawed and Jewish. Human and Jewish. I don't see the contradiction." Indeed, it is the essential humanity of Englander's characters that allows readers to cross the threshold of fiction and see themselves in another's place, to gain an understanding -- however small -- of what it means to live as they do. Outrageous, heartbreaking, and profound,For the Relief of Unbearable Urges is a truly remarkable literary debut.