Wednesday, September 3, 2014 Elul 8, 5774

Media Clippings: Top of the Heap

October 6, 2005
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It's always good to have a heap of old magazines lying around, especially in my line of work. Such haphazard compilations come in handy when Jewish news slows down, as it does on some weeks. Then you can skim something off the pile and find a topic of interest.

And I've always loved perusing old news. Not only do I get to read things I've missed, but the process puts certain periods into perspective. Even a glance at the contents page can sum up a period, offering a capsule sense of what was hot at that very moment. If, as they like to say, journalism is the first draft of history, nowhere is this more obvious than when you flip through old magazines.

In this spirit, I caught up with some short stories by two of American-Jewish fiction's brightest young stars, Nathan Englander and Allegra Goodman. These entries in the literary sweepstakes are fairly representative of their methods and styles, and together offer a modest peek into where things might be heading on the American-Jewish lit scene.

Englander's story, "How We Avenged the Blums," appeared in a special undated "Fiction Issue" of The Atlantic (which appeared in August), while Goodman's "Long Distant Client" was in the July 11 & 18 New Yorker.

I've not been kind to Englander in the past, thinking him technically adept and clever, but in a mechanical way. Yet I must say that this new story began in a gripping and promising manner. By promising, I mean indicative of something deeper and more resonant than the facile exercises he's pulled off so far.

A thuggish young man, referred to only as "the Anti-Semite," terrorizes some Long Island yeshiva buchers until they take matters into their own hands and learn self-defense.

But at about the midpoint of the story, something changes, and the characters start doing and saying things they would never do or say; you realize that the author doesn't want to let his characters live, but rather hopes to make a point about Jews and how they act.

As for the Goodman story, it, too, starts off beautifully. It provides a brief introduction to the world of Mel, who works in the human-resources department of a start-up computer firm. But he's the eminence grise there, and feels unsettled among his hot-shot co-workers.

In addition, life at home is turning weird ever since his wife embraced Orthodox Judaism and seems off in a world of her own.

Mel begins to truly feel his age when his back goes out, and he starts seeing a guru-type who's the only one who seems able to alleviate the spasms. But this guru has his own domestic problems and keeps breaking Mel's appointments, much to the patient's despair.

Goodman keeps everything rolling until the very last paragraphs, when the story just appears to dribble away. Only when I read her bio did I realize that this wasn't a short story at all, but an excerpt from her upcoming novel (hence, the reason there was no ending).

I don't enjoy such ruses. A story should be a story. Still, I'll keep an eye out for her novel, Intuition, due in February, especially if Mel's anywhere in the vicinity.

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