BY GORDON HOUSER | MCCLATCHY NEWSPAPERS
"What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank." By Nathan Englander. Knopf. $24.95.
Nathan Englander's second story collection (he's also published a novel) includes eight new stories that combine comedy and tragedy and consider larger questions about human nature. He presents those questions through the lenses of Jewish characters of all ages, from New York to Europe to Israel.
The title story brings together two married couples in one couple's home in Florida. The other couple, Mark and Lauren, are Hasidic and live in Israel. Deb and Lauren are longtime friends. The couples talk from different perspectives. Mark says that "the most annoying thing about being Hasidic in the outside world ... is the constant policing by civilians."
He notes that Deb and her husband, the unnamed narrator, are obsessed with the Holocaust "as a necessary sign of identity." For him, the current Holocaust that is destroying Judaism is intermarriage.
Soon the tension eases as they partake of the Florida couple's son's stash of marijuana. Soon they're laughing, then satisfying their hunger. Later they play a game Deb and Lauren played when they were young. Called "the Anne Frank game," it asks players to imagine a second Holocaust, then talk about which of their Christian friends would hide them.
The game leads to a surprising — and alarming — revelation.
In the back of every character's mind in these stories is the Holocaust. The characters vary greatly in their observation of Jewish practices, yet that dark cloud affects them all.
In "Camp Sundown," a camp director tries to talk a group of elderly vigilantes from taking action against someone they believe is a Nazi from the concentration camps. Mixed with that tension is some funny dialogue that plays with language. One character says someone "wears now a wig and eats the snafu hot dogs." The camp director corrects him: "Tofu."
In "How We Avenged the Blums," young Jewish boys try to deal with a bully they call the Anti-Semite. They go to an 18-year-old Jewish boy for help. He tells them: "It's a delicate thing being Jewish. ... It's a condition that aggravates the more mind you pay it." In spite of wanting vengeance, the narrator at the end decides "I'd always feel that to be broken was better than to break — my failing."
These stories deal with how to be Jewish in a world that is often anti-Semitic. Yet Englander does not romanticize Jews or portray them merely as victims. The enemies of many of these characters are themselves.
Two of the stories are set in Israel. "Sister Hills" describes the beginning of an Israeli settlement from the beginning of the Yom Kippur War in 1973 through today. It's told as a fable about the surviving founders of the settlement, two women who made a pact that has harrowing consequences later. It also shows the harshness of keeping Jewish laws.
"Free Fruit for Young Widows," perhaps the best story in the collection, unveils the evolution of evil in a man who survived the Holocaust at great cost to his soul. A father describes to his son "the hazy morality of combat" and the "gray space that was called real life." He tells his son not to judge the man who survived the Holocaust too severely: "You, spoiled child, apply the rules of civilization to a boy who had seen only its opposite."
Englander is a fine writer who is willing to take risks. Two of the stories, "Peep Show" and "Everything I Know About My Family on My Mother's Side" are more experimental. He is deft at using apt phrases. He describes "this Pat Tillman, quagmire-of-Iraq world" or someone who speaks "with his 'master's in social work' tone."
Englander includes many Hebrew or Yiddish words and some Jewish arcana, and sometimes it's obscure. For example, it would help to know what a "hametz" is. And one passage runs, "he went to heder, had the peyes and all that. But in America, a classic galusmonger."
He also provides many interesting insights, such as this about "Israel's own internal plague ... the one that took more children of Israel than all the bloodshed and hatred of all their long wars combined," referring to highway accidents.
Englander is part of a new generation of outstanding short-story writers and definitely worth reading.