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The Boston Phoenix Unbearably Good

Nathan Englander delivers a stunning collection

By John Freeman

MAY 17, 1999: 

FOR THE RELIEF OF UNBEARABLE URGES, by Nathan Englander. Knopf, 206 pages, $22.

Bernard Malamud and Philip Roth won the 1959 and 1960 National Book Awards for their first story collections, The Magic Barrel and Goodbye, Columbus, respectively, and it will be no surprise if Nathan Englander's debut repeats this award performance in 1999. It is not just the clarity and virtuosity of Englander's stories that makes them outstanding. It is Englander's voice, which comes to us bold, unwavering, and with a whiff of prophecy that, like Roth's and Malamud's writing, expands the boundaries of the story to near-hallucinatory vistas.

For the Relief of Unbearable Urges is populated by Jews of modest but psychologically revealing vocation. Writers, rabbis, and unhappily married women animate the book with their spiritual and sensual wrangling. Englander brilliantly transforms his prose style -- choppy and severe in one instance, languid and layered as an onion in the next -- to capture the rhythms of each new world. The first lines of "The Wig," for example, convey the mix of sensuality and rigidity with which Ruchama, an Orthodox Jewish wig maker, views her world: "Colors and styles, she takes note of. Hemlines, accessories, heel width and height. Also, that the girls get taller every month, bonier and more sickly looking. Ruchama had quite a figure herself as a girl, kept it until the first three children were born. But never, from the age of twelve, was she without a chest and a bottom. She really can't imagine how these fence posts manage to sit down." Early in the story, it is clear that Ruchama (who is not past 50) has chosen (or been chosen by) her profession to recapture part of her youth. From its outset, the story funnels toward Ruchama's fantasy -- to be a woman stopping traffic with a mane of hair -- and her eventual brutal encounter with reality.

Many of Englander's characters live, like Ruchama, in a state of hyperconsciousness that is a blend of piety and lunacy. Like Dostoyevsky's characters, they are so devoted to their idea of faith that it makes them outcasts. In "The Gilgul of Park Avenue," an unassuming WASP named Charles Morton Louger discovers, as he rides uptown in a cab, that he has a Jewish soul. ("Ping! Like that it came. Like a knife against a glass.") His wife does not like this development at all, so he goes to the Royal Hills Mystical Jewish Reclamation Center and speaks with a rabbi from Bolinas, California -- another man who "suddenly" discovered his Jewish soul. When Louger gets his rabbi, shrink, and wife together, the outcome is anything but resolution.

In "Reunion," an on-again, off-again mental patient named Marty meets a John Doe while recuperating in a mental hospital. Marty decides to help Doe both get better and reunite with his rabbi brother. Two trips to Brooks Brothers and a regimen of medication later, they crash a party at the house of the rabbi, who shoves Doe into the street, telling him to "Go . . . back to your gutter. Take your fancy clothes and get away." Again and again, characters rap their heads against a world that is comically and tragically indifferent to their deepest desires. As the Bolinas-born rabbi says: "There is no hope for the pious."

Throughout the volume, in fact, the fate of the pious is harsh and seemingly illogical. As Malamud wrote in his classic story "The Jewbird": "The window was open so the skinny bird flew in. Flappity-flap with its frazzled black wings. That's how it goes. It's open, you're in. Closed, you're out, and that's your fate." Showing how characters face the grimmest of fates is the basis for Englander's three finest stories. In "The Twenty-Seventh Man," a clerical error in Stalinist Russia mistakenly gets an aspiring writer named Pinchas Pelovitz rounded up with 26 great Yiddish writers. It becomes clear that escaping is a pipe dream and death, certain. Just as they go before the firing squad, Pelovitz "publishes" his first story by reciting it to the group; being chosen for death ironically legitimizes his presence among the others. In "The Tumblers," followers of the Mahmir Rebbe escape a train to the death camps by stumbling into a circus car. To make their escape, the Jews camouflage themselves as acrobats and perform before an audience of Nazi sympathizers. After a few magical moments when they almost become like acrobats, limber enough to twist their way out of seemingly inevitable fates, they are heckled by the audience, called "clumsy as Jews." Although they are spared death, the humiliation is scarcely less imprisoning than a concentration camp. And in the title story, a young man whose marital bed has gone cold gets a rabbi's prescription to go to a prostitute. Yet the predictable "side effects" of the treatment render him incapable of the love his wife is now ready for.

Englander asks us to be duplicitous readers -- in his stories we witness what did not, but could have, occurred. In "The Twenty-Seventh Man" we are like the 28th man in the roundup, witnessing but not dying with the writers; in "The Tumblers" we are privy to the Mahmirims' luck, and we must be complicit in their bravery and humiliation; and in "The Wig" we share Ruchama's secret about the wig, and the fantasy, she makes for herself. These stories boldly reimagine what fiction is capable of doing. They go beyond escapism to engage us, and ask us to share in the moral burden of their creation.

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