The Life and Death of a Male Body

September 29, 2006 | ,

By Philip Roth
Houghton Mifflin. 182 pages. $24.

Half a century ago, when he was all of 21 years old, Philip Roth was already thinking seriously about death. In 1954, he published a short story called “The Day It Snowed,” about a small boy, Sydney, who is disturbed to discover that first his aunt, then his uncle, and finally his stepfather have all “disappeared.” So his mother tells him, at least, hoping to spare him grief; in each case, while the family heads to the cemetery, Sydney’s left home alone. Confused, the boy takes to the streets, hoping to locate the missing persons on his own, and before long he receives a brutal education as to the nature of mortality.

The story is no masterpiece—Roth, barely out of college, had not yet developed the uncanny confidence of Goodbye, Columbus—but already, in embryonic form, it enacts a central principle of the author’s mature work. In two dozen or so extraordinary novels he has written since, Roth has often employed much the same tactic: he has sought out innocence, uncovered naivety, and laid bare the truth, no matter how much it hurts. (more…)

A Jew on the Street

September 12, 2006 | , ,

East River
By Sholem Asch

444 pages. Kessinger. $36.95.

Every movement needs a slogan, and the Jewish Enlightenment—the idea, simply put, that Jewish traditions and modern western culture can coexist harmoniously—finds its tersest expression in Y. L. Gordon’s pithy 1863 advice: “Be a man on the street and a Jew in your tent.” The problem with this prescription, of course, is that while Jews are out there in the street being men, they tend to encounter women. One thing leads to another, a man invites a woman back to his tent for a nightcap, she agrees—and all of a sudden, Cinderella-like, the man transforms back into a Jew and the woman into a dreaded shiksa. Much hand-wringing, and occasional violence, ensues. (more…)

The True Name of Gary

May 27, 2006 | , ,

Gary Shteyngart’s Absurdistan is the hilarious tale of Misha Vainberg, the obese son of one of Russia’s wealthiest men, and his exploits in a decrepit post-Soviet republic. Before being blown up by a landmine himself, Misha’s Beloved Papa, a passionate Zionist and decidedly non-traditional entrepreneur, murdered an American businessman, and so the American government is refusing to readmit Misha, even though he is a proud alumnus of Accidental College, a Midwestern temple of the liberal arts. Stranded in St. Petersburg and pining for his Bronx-raised girlfriend, Rouenna, and his Upper West Side analyst, Dr. Levine, Misha zips down to Absurdistan in the hopes of finagling a passport that will get him back to Manhattan. A comedy of errors ensues, of course, and the book is not only laugh-out-loud funny on nearly every page, but also a poignant exploration of our increasingly globalized, and increasingly absurd, world.

A couple of days after his punim graced the cover of the New York Times Book Review, and just before he set off on a coast-to-coast publicity tour, I sat down with the author to discuss the new book, his imaginary friends, and—what else?—the future of the Jews. Appropriately enough, we met for a drink in Shteyngart’s neighborhood, Manhattan’s Lower East Side, in a dim hipster bar surrounded by Asian grocery and hardware stores, and catercorner from the grand old Forward Building, now being transformed into high-rent condos but still bearing the busts of Marx and Engels on its façade. Recent immigrants, a healthy dollop of Jewish history, Communist icons, more than a whiff of the East in the air: this is the territory Shteyngart has staked out as his own, and it is as much the homeland of his globe-trotting fiction as Newark is for Philip Roth’s. The following are some excerpts from our conversation. (more…)

From Russia with Lox

May 20, 2006 | ,

By Gary Shteyngart
Random House. 333 pages. $32.95.

Memoirs of a Muse
By Lara Vapnyar
Random House. 212 pages. $32.95.

The end of the Cold War may have been neither as sudden nor as gruesome as the end of the Second World War, but for the conflict’s losers, and particularly residents of the former Soviet Union, it was no picnic. Some found themselves stuck at home, disempowered by oligarchs and jeopardized by civil unrest, while others — many of them Jewish — optimistically hopped planes to places like Newark or Toronto, only to discover that mechanical engineering degrees and intimacy with Pushkin entitled them to nothing better in North America than driving a taxi. New novels by Gary Shteyngart and Lara Vapnyar, young writers born in the Soviet Union and now based in New York City, offer guided tours of the fleeting exuberance and enduring frustrations of such post-Soviet adventures. (more…)

Those Ukraine Girls

March 20, 2006 | , ,

As the latest season of The Real World rolls out in Key West, Odessa-born Svetlana (“We’re not Russian, we’re Jewish,” she tells the camera) is the babe to watch. Sure, she’s got a boyfriend back home, but he’s several thousand miles away now and comes off as a meathead; the teasers for Tuesday’s episode suggest he’ll be out of the picture imminently. If that’s true, two of the roommates would be happy to replace him: John, the less-than-subtle frat boy who arrived with an inflatable woman under his arm, and Zack, the “Jew from Seattle,” who couldn’t be more of a mensch—that is, from a parent’s perspective: he doesn’t drink or smoke, his mother and father are his best friends, and he can count the number of times he’s had sex on the fingers of one hand. That might win him points on JDate, but this is MTV. (more…)