This newest collection of Englander’s short stories is mesmerizing, a fascinating mix that runs the gamut from humor to homicide, from pathos to the pathetic. Englander gives us a multifaceted view into the minds and hearts of a people which has been fighting for — and occasionally running from — its own identity for centuries.
Some of these stories have the ring of an old Isaac Babel or Isaac Bashevis Singer story (“Sister Hills” and “Free Fruit for Young Widows”), while others smack of Woody Allen (“Camp Sundown” and the title story). All of them are designed to provoke the reader, as Englander’s tales of fear, guilt, anger, vengeance and mercy are meant to challenge our own moral compass. A gang of young American Jewish boys, inspired by tales of Masada, band together to battle the anti-Semite in their community and learn a lesson about violence, while a philosophy professor in Israel carries the corrosion of violence forever inside him. A prosperous Jew indulges in a moment of lust at a peep show, and learns more than he bargained for about who he is and where he came from. A camp for Jewish senior citizens turns into a nightmare parody of a concentration camp when lanyard-weaving campers suspect there is a former Nazi guard in their midst. And Englander includes an autobiographical piece about his search for his family’s history, which is both hysterically funny and a surprisingly poignant self-reflection which speaks to all of us.
One story I keenly felt, entitled “The Reader,” expresses Everyman’s fear of extinction, whether through cultural death or physical death. A once prominent author returns to the bookstore circuit after spending a decade on his last great novel, only to discover a very changed terrain and no audience. Englander’s personal nightmare or a commentary on the tragic decline of a reading public? Perhaps both.
My favorite story, however, was the lead “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank,” in which a secular Jewish couple from Florida and an ultra-orthodox Jewish couple visiting from Israel get stoned together, and play the “Righteous Gentile” game. This story had me in stitches from the first page, and had me crying at the end, and I will say no more except that everyone should read this story and then spend a little time getting to know oneself. I can’t say that every story in this collection grabbed me the same way, and a few had me downright squirmy, but Englander’s talent in turning uncomfortable issues into unavoidable ones is a valuable contribution that shouldn’t be missed.