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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 But Stalin's overzealous henchmen do their job only too well, and a 27th man, an unpublished dreamer named Pinchas Pelovits, is added to the list.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.
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.
A pointed and poignant debut group of short stories set in the Hassidic community, which manages to offer illumination not just on the Hassidim (who are rarely described in fiction) but also universal desires.
Daring, funny, exuberant....His stories [share] the powerful mixture of allegory and quotidian detail that Bernard Malamud pioneered...At the same time, Mr. Englander's voice is distinctly his own keenly attuned to both the absurdities of life and its undertow of sadness. The New York Times
...[An] accomplished collection....affecting, accessible...
His debut collection of unforgettable stories establishes his voice as unique.
San Francisco Chronicle
Deeply affecting...It provokes an array of reactions, from shocked tears to guilty belly laughs.
Wall Street Journal
E....[An] extraordinary debut collection...brilliant...hilarious...profound...a revelation of the human condition.
New York Times Book Review
His characters are marvelously sympathetic creations deeply pious Jews whose lives are disrupted by unbearable urges towards conjugal satisfaction, vanity, reconciliation, even piety itself. What is most striking is Englander's genius for telling a tale.
The special grace of Nathan Englander's stories is their ability to evoke, richly and authoritatively, a circumscribed milieu, while reaching out to the turbulences of flesh and spirit that are not only Jewish but comprehensively human.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
"I suffer greatly under the urges with which I have been blessed," says Dov Binyamin, an orthodox Jew agonizing over his wife Chava's self-imposed celibacy, and one of several protagonists in Englander's stellar first collection who seek often ill-fitting rabbinical answers to thorny modern problems. When Dov's rebbe grants him authorization to see a prostitute, the consequences (not least of which is a case of VD) offer a moral fable of pathos and hilarity that is the signature key of these nine graceful and remarkably self-assured stories. Ranging expertly from contemporary Israel to New York and to isolated Yiddish communities in Russia and Europe, they spin a vision of 20th-century orthodox Judaism under siege from both political tyranny and the rapid pace of modern life. Englander's prose is spare and crystalline, capturing the singsong rhythms and sometimes contorted English of a primarily Yiddish cast, often striking a deliberately archaic tone, as in "The 27th Man," the Chekhovian tale of Pinchas Pelovits, a dreamy, unpublished writer in midcentury Russia. Not unlike Englander, Pinchas has "constructed his own world with a compassionate God and a diverse group of worshipers. In it, he tested these people with moral dilemmas and tragedies." Abducted by Stalin's henchmen, Pinchas composes a miniature masterpiece, a parable of faith in spite of an absent God, which he recites to his cell mates only minutes before being gunned down by a firing squad. Despite their surface mixture of humor and horror, these are stories of ideas, offering complex meditations on Judaism through the eyes of an astonishing range of characters: a disconsolate middle-age orthodox woman imprisoned in limbo by a husband who won't grant a divorce; a Cheeveresque Park Avenue financial analyst with a taxi-cab epiphany that he's Jewish; an American navigating the streets of contemporary Jerusalem during a terrorist campaign. Englander's reported $350,000 advance for this collection has made it one of the most bruited literary debuts of the year. Such brouhaha shouldn't cloud the achievement of these unpretentious and powerful stories.
Nathan Englander ought to be on the literary scene for a long time, judging by the maturity of his literary debut...From Stalinist Russia to shtetl life in New York City, Englander's stories are populated by old-world Jews. While his style alludes to Malamud and his characters to Singer, Englander is a true original who mines his orthodox Jewish background and gives it universal appeal.
Time Out New York
James E. Young
...[An] extraordinary debut collection...brilliant...hilarious...profound...a revelation of the human condition.
The New York Times Book Review
Englander fills each of these pieces with vivid life, with characters that jump off the page.
One of the most impressive literary debuts I've come across in 10 years of reviewing books.
This is an exquisite, stirring glimpse into the world of Orthodox Jewry.
Talk Magazine's 10 Best Books of 1999
Anyone anywhere who loves good stories will take these wonderful tales to heart.
A debut collection of nine stories that explore the condition of being Jewish with an often hallucinatory, epigrammatic eloquence that is, as advertised, reminiscent of the fiction of Isaac Singer, Saul Bellow, and especially Bernard Malamud.
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.
From the Publisher
"Englander's voice is distinctly his owndaring, funny and exuberant." Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times"Taut, edgy, sharply observed. . . . A revelation of the human condition." The New York Times Book Review"Remarkable art. . . .The author fills each of these pieces with vivid life, with characters that jump off the page." Newsday"Every so often there's a new voice that entirely revitalizes the story. . . . It's happening again with Nathan Englander, whose precise, funny, heartbreaking, well-controlled but never contrived stories open a window on a fascinating landscape we might never have known was there. It's the best story collection I've read in ages." Ann Beattie"His characters are marvelously sympathetic creations. . . . What is most striking about the collection is not the subject matter but Englander's genius for telling a tale. . . . Invite[s] comparison to some of the best storytellersGogol, Singer, Kafka and even John Cheever." Time Out New York
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.