Nathan Englander's first work of fiction, published when he was in his late twenties, landed him firmly in the company of Bellow, Malamud, Singer and Roth, with ten delightfully irreverent stories rooted in the weight of Jewish history and the customs of orthodox life. For the Relief of Unbearable Urges is bold, funny and irresistibly inventive, a ...
Nathan Englander's first work of fiction, published when he was in his late twenties, landed him firmly in the company of Bellow, Malamud, Singer and Roth, with ten delightfully irreverent stories rooted in the weight of Jewish history and the customs of orthodox life. For the Relief of Unbearable Urges is bold, funny and irresistibly inventive, a brilliant tragi-comic vision delivered in a voice that is as humorous and full of life as it is sorrowful and haunted - a work of stunning authority and imagination. In 'The Twenty-Seventh Man' a clerical error brings earnest, unpublished Pinchas into the company of writers slated for execution at the order of Stalin; in 'The Tumblers' a group of Jews fated for Auschwitz improvise an escape by blending into a troop of acrobats and teaching themselves to tumble; in the title story, a married Hasidic man incensed by his wife's interminable menstrual cycle gets a dispensation from a rabbi to see a prostitute, 'for the reliefof unbearable urges'. Englander's stories are wise and compassionate, at once outrageous and wrenchingly sad.
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Publishers Weekly, 1999-02-01 "I suffer greatly under the urges with which I have been blessed," says Dov Binyamin, an orthodox Jew agonizing over his wife Chava's self-imposed celibacy, and one of several protagonists in Englander's stellar first collection who seek often ill-fitting rabbinical answers to thorny modern problems. When Dov's rebbe grants him authorization to see a prostitute, the consequences (not least of which is a case of VD) offer a moral fable of pathos and hilarity that is the signature key of these nine graceful and remarkably self-assured stories. Ranging expertly from contemporary Israel to New York and to isolated Yiddish communities in Russia and Europe, they spin a vision of 20th-century orthodox Judaism under siege from both political tyranny and the rapid pace of modern life. Englander's prose is spare and crystalline, capturing the singsong rhythms and sometimes contorted English of a primarily Yiddish cast, often striking a deliberately archaic tone, as in "The 27th Man," the Chekhovian tale of Pinchas Pelovits, a dreamy, unpublished writer in midcentury Russia. Not unlike Englander, Pinchas has "constructed his own world with a compassionate God and a diverse group of worshipers. In it, he tested these people with moral dilemmas and tragedies." Abducted by Stalin's henchmen, Pinchas composes a miniature masterpiece, a parable of faith in spite of an absent God, which he recites to his cell mates only minutes before being gunned down by a firing squad. Despite their surface mixture of humor and horror, these are stories of ideas, offering complex meditations on Judaism through the eyes of an astonishing range of characters: a disconsolate middle-age orthodox woman imprisoned in limbo by a husband who won't grant a divorce; a Cheeveresque Park Avenue financial analyst with a taxi-cab epiphany that he's Jewish; an American navigating the streets of contemporary Jerusalem during a terrorist campaign. Englander's reported $350,000 advance for this collection has made it one of the most bruited literary debuts of the year. Such brouhaha shouldn't cloud the achievement of these unpretentious and powerful stories. (Apr.)
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