Review | Tuesday 28 February 2012
On my very first visit to New York in 1999, I decided to go to a book launch one hot summer evening in a little store in Greenwich village, just to compare it to our own author events here at Carlton. It was packed with people (including myself, I think) peering in from outside of the front door. And it turned out to be Nathan Englander’s debut For the Relief of Unbearable Urges, which went on to become one of that season’s most acclaimed books.
Now, all these years later, a second story collection appears – adorned with more endorsements from contemporary literary giants than I think I’ve ever seen before (Foer, Eggers, Obreht, Egan, Franzen, and that’s just the beginning!) – and it’s set to be similarly celebrated.
I think the chief quality to underscore here is nothing else but the author’s courage. The title story takes its model from Carver – a bunch of Jewish friends sitting around drinking and smoking pot, and slowly revealing more and more about themselves. But when you make their subject matter the politics of religious identity under the shadow of the Holocaust – the secular couple from Florida vs their ultra-orthodox friends, visiting from Israel, who are convinced an American Shoah is underway – the stakes begin to rise, until the story’s devastating denouement.
But this story, like several of the others here, is also leavened with moments of high comedy, which plants Englander firmly in the rich Jewish comedic tradition of Woody Allen et al.
The longest story in the collection, 'Seven Hills' is more at the Kafkaesque end of the humour scales, but is no less stunning – a history of one of the original founding families of what is now an Eastern Jerusalem suburb, but was then arid hills in disputed territory, post-Six-Day War. I felt I learned more about the lived experience of that region from Englander’s almost mythical tale than any number of non-fiction treatments.
Martin Shaw, Readings’ Books Division Manager, is what they call a ‘career bookseller’, which might be an interesting concept as the world turns ‘E’. Formerly an avid fiction reader, now ‘Jolly Jumper’ supervisor to an adorable 7-month-old. Follow him on twitter - @thebooksdesk