By Shalom Auslander
Riverhead. 292 pp. $26.95
Shalom Auslander’s two previous books, the story collection “Beware of God” and his memoir, “Foreskin’s Lament,” rely for their unsparing comedy and narrative energy on the author’s Orthodox Jewish background and his struggle to escape its oppressive constraints.
Now, presumably liberated from that parochial world, his first novel, “Hope: A Tragedy,” unfolds from the perspective of an openly secular Jew, Solomon Kugel. Still, all of those stereotypical Jewish neuroses, from never forgetting the past to expecting the worst in the future and every hang-up in between, remain hard-wired. Where then does a Jew who has given up the external trappings of faith deposit all that crazy guilt and dread?
The answer in our time is every Jew’s favorite one-size-fits-all equal opportunity obsession: the Holocaust.
Hoping to escape the past and avert any future calamity, Kugel relocates from Brooklyn with his wife, Bree (Brianna), and 3-year-old son, Jonah, to a farmhouse in rural Stockton, a village “unencumbered by history.” Predictably, he drags his history along not only in the form of his suffocating anxieties but also in the person of his supposedly dying mother, a fifth-generation American Jew whose Holocaust-survivor delusions with their standard props (grandfather the lampshade, great-grandmother the bar of soap) he tolerates and even supports.
Soon after the family settles into its new home, a foul smell as well as a persistent tapping sound lead Kugel to the attic, where he discovers none other than Anne Frank. It turns out that this most-celebrated Holocaust victim didn’t die as the world had assumed, but has passed the 60-plus years since the end of the war hiding in attics, where,naturally, she feels most comfortable, typing her novel (considering the 32 million copies her “Diary” sold, it’s a hard act to follow). Anne Frank is not exactly someone you can kick out of your attic, even if you’re a lapsed Jew, without triggering a worldwide scandal.
As all this historic sewage spills over within the walls of Kugel’s new home, outside the menacing future looms in the shape of an arsonist on the loose in Stockton, burning down one farmhouse after another, inexorably zeroing in on Kugel and his family.
This is not the first time that Anne Frank has risen from the dead to make a comeback in a work of fiction. Her most notable prior reincarnation occurs in Philip Roth’s 1979 novel “The Ghost Writer.” Without acknowledging this earlier sighting, Auslander deploys some sly wit to dispose of his venerable predecessor. “Does he live in Brooklyn?” Bree asks of Roth. “I thought he was dead,” she says.
In Roth’s book, the suspected Anne Frank character (called Amy Bellette) is still young and desirable, the object of Nathan Zuckerman’s fantasies. By the time Auslander has a go at her, she’s an ancient crone with nasty eating habits and revolting personal hygiene who firmly stakes her claim to the title of Anne Frank and all the perverse atrocity benefits and rewards that come with it. In this way, the Holocaust’s No. 1 victim morphs into another survivor — such as Kugel’s mother. Kugel, for his part, at the cost of his wife and child’s well-being, his livelihood and his personal health, becomes the enabler of both of these batty old ladies as they merge and clash, providing each with her peculiar nourishment, physical and emotional, as well as shelter.
The attic at the top of the house, like the head at the top of the body, is where all the accumulated junk is stored. For Kugel, Anne Frank in his attic represents the dumping ground for his worst fears: his child’s fragility, the certainty of disaster. Given Auslander's irreverent, overwrought, regressive dark comedy, the attic also becomes the launching pad for one of several riffs weaving through the novel. It’s where you hide when the inevitable worst-case scenario hits: the next Holocaust. Kugel goes around asking people if he and his family could hide in their attics. What about his family’s special needs, allergies and other issues? How would these be provided for in the attic? Could his attic hideout be upgraded with broadband Internet access?
Another riff involves Kugel’s quest for the perfect “last words” to pronounce on his deathbed. Many possibilities are put forth, none is quite right, but all express a bleak vision of life, a view reinforced by two minor but influential characters with mythic names: Professor Jove, Kugel’s psychiatrist of sorts, who declaims on the futility of hope reflected in the book’s title; and Eve, Kugel’s real estate agent, who lays out the grim facts with unchallengeable authority. Their brutal reality check also applies to the fate of the Jews, manifested, among other ways, in repeated references to a martyr burned to death wrapped in a Torah scroll. Auslander says it was Rabbi Akiva. Not to quibble, but it was Rabbi Haninah ben Teradion. Rabbi Akiva was martyred by having his flesh raked with sharp combs. Either way, it’s bad news, further confirmation of Auslander’s refrain: “It was evening, it was morning, it sucked.”
Reich’s most recent novel is “My Holocaust.”