For the Relief of Unbearable Urges (Faber and Faber) by Nathan Englander

Recommendation by Sophie Xiong

2012 must be a banner year for Nathan Englander. He has (at long last) come out with his second collection of short stories titled What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, he teamed up with Jonathan Safran Foer to release a new Haggadah, and his first play, “The Twenty-Seventh Man,” will be produced in November. The play was originally the first short story in Englander’s remarkable debut collection, For the Relief of Unbearable Urges, published in 1999. Most of the collection focuses on post-World War Two orthodox Jewish Americans who carefully (or in some cases recklessly) calculate identity as they maneuver the strict ethics and laws of the Judaic condition. Other stories, especially “The Tumblers,” set during the Holocaust, challenge readers with darkly twisted humor in the most desolate other-worldly circumstances. The elegance of this particular story provokes wonder; how does Englander encase hideous history within writing that seems fitting for wonderland fables? Englander continues through the rest of the collection to display this deft ability to juggle apparently mismatched tones and subjects with poise.  “Reb Kringle” is about an unfortunate rabbi forced to make extra money by dressing up as Santa Claus during the holiday season, until he finds a Jewish boy sitting on his lap. The title story shadows a desperate man who seeks remedy from his rabbi. His wife has discontinued intimacy, so the rabbi presents him a most jarring proposition to alleviate his itch, and the acceptance of the resolution proves to be more unbearable than relieving. At times his absurd exaggerations, such as in “The Gilgul of Park Avenue,” make the comical aspects redundant and tiring. “The Twenty-Seventh Man,” however, is sublimely, but sickeningly, the impeccable combination of haunting and hilarious. In this tale inspired by Stalin’s “Night of the Murdered Poets,” twenty-six Jewish Russian literary giants are gathered in cells, the last to join them in their final days is an unknown twenty-seventh man, a so-called fool. Those readers who have even the slightest devotion to freedom of expression may find themselves laughing through tears.

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