READING ANY NATHAN Englander story is like watching a revue of great Jewish writers. This onetime yeshiva student has taken only the best for his models: wry doom from Singer, liturgy and myth from Ozick, beauty and violence from Babel, everyday quirk from Paley. Yet, like a good stage magician, Englander does an indefinable something to these ingredients, transporting you from a page-level appreciation of mere pastiche to a universe uniquely, luminously his own.
Slightly off kilter, Englander's stories in his debut volume For the Relief of Unbearable Urges (Knopf) range all over the map, and slide freely across decades and tones. He begins with nods to the past: Jewish writers caught in Stalin's net spend the night arguing and then turn their own deaths to literature before facing the firing squad ("The Twenty-Seventh Man"). In "The Tumblers" a ludicrously strict sect of Hasidim unaccountably survives the Holocaust when mistaken for circus performers, only to find themselves performing for and mocked by Hitler himself for being "clumsy as Jews." Both stories work a wonderfully folkloric vein in which the tension between death and survival ultimately goes unresolved. "How much easier to face an eternity without wonder?" thinks the protagonist of "The Tumblers," debating whether to escape his precarious subsistence for a hell he can rely on. Yet such outsized environs also bespeak a grandeur difficult for even the boldest first-time writer to sustain for long without resorting to grandiloquence.
Fortunately, Englander ratchets down the pressure by turning his eye to New Yorkers both uptown--as in "The Gilgul of Park Avenue," where a WASP is struck Jewish in the back of a cab--and downtown. Loosened by these less extreme settings, Englander's prose becomes extravagant as it laughs and savors the world. When neo-Semite Charles Morton Luger sits down to his first dinner equipped with his new soul, he discovers that "half an hour Jewish and already he felt obliged. He knew there were dietary laws, milk and meat forbidden to touch, but he didn't know if chicken was considered meat and didn't dare ask....And so, a Marrano in modern times, Charles ate his chicken like a gentile--all the while a Jew in his heart."
Englander's subject throughout is Jewishness itself. An impossible predicament, an unbearable legacy of "hopeful stories from hopeless times," this faith both redeems and imprisons his characters. They know enough to seek moments of redemption, brief glimpses of something better they might yet be. Yet even this candle blows out: "No hope for the pious," Charles Luger's rabbinical guide predicts. Gloom never triumphs, though, because Englander's voice is full and his empathy limitless. He as easily inhabits an aging Hasidic beautician longing for a wig of her own as he does a Jewish Santa suddenly outraged by the little boy on his knee whose stepfather has denied him a menorah. This joyous little parable--maybe Santa really should be a sciatic Hasid known as "Reb Kringle"--suggests nothing so much as David Sedaris reimagined by Bernard Malamud.
Of the nine stories in this collection, the only (mild) disappointment is the title story, whose payoff feels tritely biblical. As a whole, this is charmed, unexpected stuff, fluid and elegiac about the most mundane of topics--a book to recommend to friends and press on strangers.
Nathan Englander reads 8:00 p.m. Thursday, April 29 at the Hungry Mind; (651) 699-0587.