Critic, Book World


Philip Roth died just 10 months ago, and now his friend Nathan Englander has published a book called “” I suspect that’s not coincidental. There’s nothing derivative about this clever novel, but its tragicomic treatment of death, guilt and Jewish orthodoxy surely pays homage to the late great writer. May his memory be a blessing.

When Englander won the PEN/Malamud Award for short stories in 2000, he was barely 30, by far the youngest-ever recipient of that honor, which typically recognizes a lifetime of achievement. Although he had only published a single collection, “For the Relief of Unbearable Urges,” since then he’s confirmed the judges’ faith in his work. Four of his stories have appeared in “The Best American Short Stories,” and in 2012, he published a second collection called “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank,” which was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize.

“” is a novel, but its first part serves as another reminder of Englander’s extraordinary skill as a short story writer. Set 20 years before the rest of the book, it describes a contentious family gathering following a patriarch’s death. Larry — the black sheep — has come from Brooklyn to stay with his Orthodox sister in Memphis as they sit shiva. Despite hearing the “quiet, muttering stream of well-wishers,” he feels harshly appraised. “I want them not to judge me just because I left their stupid world,” he hisses at his sister in the kitchen. These two siblings lash out at each other with words sharpened by grief. Larry insists he be allowed to mourn in his own way. His sister upbraids him for thoughtlessly ignoring their traditions. “It’s no reason to treat me like a freak,” he cries. “They’re just stupid rules.”

But of course, they’re not just stupid rules — not to his sister and not even to Larry. One of the fascinating points Englander explores in “” is the way ardent followers and angry apostates both regard religious tradition with awe — but from different sides. “Sometimes the rejection is a way to let people know that the thing we reject truly matters,” Larry says much later. “It is its own kind of faith, even if it’s the opposite of faith.”

Larry and his sister may lose control, but Englander never does. Their vicious argument, made all the more injurious because they love each other, articulates the confusing interplay of grief, affection and self-righteousness that only death can provoke. As Emerson wrote, “Sorrow makes us all children again.”

Before he returns home, Larry endures one last confrontation with his sister about his ongoing obligation to recite the Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead, for their beloved father. “I’m asking about the torch you must carry for this family — our family — for the next eleven months. Tell me you get that the Kaddish is on you,” she insists. “You know you can’t miss. Not once. Not a single service.”

The author Nathan Englander. (Joshua Meier)

Larry knows he won’t perform that duty, but then, after scanning the Internet for porn, he accidentally discovers there’s an app for that — or at least a website: “JDate for the dead,” he thinks. For a price, deeply committed students in Jerusalem will say the Mourner’s Prayer for Larry’s father for the next eleven months. What could be more convenient? As soon as he’s typed in his credit card number, secular Larry has passed off his duty to a devout Jew “eager to do the job.”

The cringe factor of this transaction is high — raised higher by a Rothian description of Larry pleasuring himself — but Englander has a way of wedding sharp comedy to anguished solemnity. After all, if Larry were as secular as he claims, he wouldn’t bother with this secret plan to simultaneously shirk and fulfill his duty. His confidence that a website can carry out his familial and spiritual obligation is a brilliant satire of our mania for replacing actual human attention with slick, virtual solutions.

When the main part of the novel picks up 20 years later, Englander keeps pushing on these issues with the same fertile wit and tender compassion. Larry, now married with two children and working in a Jewish school, has flipped back to orthodoxy. Using his Hebrew name, Shaul, he’s returned to the fold and frequently recites the tale of his rebirth for any gathering of Jews. “I do not share the story to brag, or show off, or even to make excuses for all the years of lost time,” he sighs. “I only share it to say, it’s never too late to live one’s true life.”

Larry makes that sound like the happy end of his story, but it’s effectively the beginning of Englander’s. Unsettled by a seventh-grade boy who refuses to observe his own father’s death, Larry finds himself strangely discombobulated. The memory of that Web transaction he made so many years ago returns to trouble him in fresh ways, drawing him down a tortuous path of esoteric concerns that even his most orthodox friends can’t follow. But the heart of his dilemma is universal: If, as he’s claimed, “it’s never too late to live one’s true life,” what exactly is his true life?

That quest will take him far from home and shatter the contented equilibrium of his life, which provides an element of comic mystery to this plot. It also offers Englander a chance to explore the tension between naivete and faith. Larry’s fanatical devotion and his anxiety about fulfilling it might look ridiculous to those who don’t feel the vitality of tradition, but the humor of “” is infused with delight rather than mockery.

What a rare blessing to find a smart and witty novel about the unexpected ways religious commitment can fracture a life — and restore it.

Ron Charles writes about books for The Washington Post and hosts On Sunday at 5 p.m. Nathan Englander will be at Politics & Prose at Union Market, 1270 5th St. NE.

By Nathan Englander

Knopf. 224 pp. $24.95