The Jews in Nathan Englander's short stories are mainly displaced persons. Some of them are the refugees one would expect to find in tales of the Soviet Union, the Holocaust and present-day Brooklyn. But most suffer a more intimate exile, dislodged from their own lives by causes mundane or miraculous -- hair loss, manic depression, reincarnation.
Location and dislocation are central to Englander's brilliant debut collection, "For the Relief of Unbearable Urges." Despite their impressive range of settings and situations, the nine stories all fall within the terrain of Orthodox and Hasidic life. Englander never lets his treatment of this world become self-conscious or sound like travel writing; the Yiddish and Hebrew studding his pages are simply part of the landscape.
Instead he focuses on the tensions between his characters, their communal responsibilities and the spiritual and moral universe in which they move. The manic-depressive hero of "Reunion," for instance, resentfully depends upon his rabbi to mend the family rifts his manic episodes cause. In "The Wig," a faded Hasidic beauty yearns for the hair shorn from her head and regularly slips into Manhattan to indulge an obsession with "immodest" shampoo advertisements.
Recognizing the comedy that can accompany displacement, Englander displays a fine eye for situational irony. In "The Tumblers," a group of war-era Hasids boards a stalled circus train rather than the fatal transport to the east. Mistaken for acrobats, they desperately prepare a clumsy act -- only to be acclaimed by their Nazi audience as brilliant parodists of "Jewish ballet." In examining the layers of impersonation demanded by a cruel fate, Englander displays a rare originality.
Occasionally his sense of humor does drift toward Woody Allen territory. WASP financial analyst Charles Luger realizes suddenly that his body houses a Jewish soul in "The Gilgul of Park Avenue." The disruption to his life and the anguish of his Mia Farrowesque wife are amusing enough, but what saves the satire is Englander's ability to make his characters poignant. Describing Charles' furtive performance of Shabbos prayers, Englander writes, "He closed his eyes and thought back to his first night away from home, sleeping on a mattress next to his cousin's bed. He was four or five, and his cousin, older, slept with the bedroom door shut tight, not even a crack of light from the hallway. It was the closest to this experience, the closest he could remember to losing and gaining a world." This small book is full of such spare, haunting moments.
Although he's been compared to Isaac Bashevis Singer, Bernard Malamud and Philip Roth, Englander recalls for me -- and I mean this without irony -- the best of John Cheever. Even though his characters would never sit down at the same table with Cheever's, his invented Orthodox community of Royal Hills, Brooklyn, has a presence and an undercurrent of longing reminiscent of Cheever's suburban enclaves. Subtle characterizations, an instinct for detail and a sense of restraint already mark the 28-year-old Englander as a substantial talent in short fiction.