This is a remarkable collection for a newcomer still in his twenties to produce. True, Nathan Englander has learnt from writers such as Bernard Malamud and Isaac Bashevis Singer, and from a tradition of Jewish storytelling to balance comedy and tragedy, surrealism and pathos. But the poise and inventiveness of his continuation of this tradition reveal a writer of distinctive gifts. Englander announces the seriousness of his ambition with his first two stories, which tackle the two most compelling but daunting subjects for a 20th-century writer: Stalin's purges and the Holocaust. "The Twenty-seventh Man" has Stalin ordering the round-up and execution of Jewish authors. Not even his regime, though, operates with such omniscient efficiency as to produce a definitive list of these subversives. On one day the list has 26 names; on the next, when he gives it his signature, it has 27. "No matter, except maybe to the twenty-seventh."
The cruelly whimsical workings of fate are a feature of this collection, as is the bizarre intrusion of human foibles in even the most desperate of situations. The 27th author is Pinchas Pelovits, a dreamy young man living above a rural inn. His appearance on the list is a cruel act of fate, because no writing by him has been published. The agents who arrest him get lost and, when their vehicle breaks down, are reduced to commandeering a farmer's cart. Further arrests are similarly farcical: one writer has to be dragged, comatose with drink, from a whorehouse; the wife of another strikes an officer unconscious.
The persistence of human spirit is also one of Englander's themes. Incarcerated, the 27 writers behave as they would anywhere: gossiping, rowing, kvetching. Pinchas composes a story and, just before he and his fellows are to meet their deaths, recites it: it is a radiant little fable of acceptance and loss.
Still more ambitious is "The Tumblers". Here the Nazis invade Chelm, fictional site of Jewish stories. When the townsfolk are transported out of the town they find themselves sharing a train with a group of entertainers and determine, in order to save themselves, to impersonate acrobats. They are not very good but they get away with it. "They are as clumsy as Jews," a member of the audience shouts in ironical appreciation. One of the band steps forward, his arms upraised; the story ends with this sentence, remarkable for the grace, tact and power with which it alludes to ultimate horror: "But there were no snipers, as there are for hands that reach out of the ghettos; no dogs, as for hands that reach out from the cracks in boxcar floors; no angels waiting, as they always do, for hands that reach out from chimneys into ash-clouded skies."
The intensity lessens after these opening stories. The tone of the rest of Englander's collection is largely comic; but this is comedy that carries a wry acknowledgement of the pain of failure and misunderstanding. In "The Gilgul of Park Avenue" a financial analyst with the WASPish name of Charles Morton Luger has a revelation in the back of a New York taxi: "Oddly," he tells the driver, "it seems that I'm Jewish." Charles's wife, the art director at a glossy magazine, is horrified at his commitment to his new identity: "If you have to be Jewish, why so Jewish?" she complains.
"Reb Kringle", by contrast, has a Jew adrift in the Gentile world, impersonating Santa Claus. The title story is about a Hasidic man given dispensation to visit a prostitute: "So that my wife will be able to love me again," he tells her. "You are a very dedicated husband," the prostitute concludes. Believing the fruitless spilling of seed to be sinful, he refuses to use a condom and contracts a venereal disease.
Englander's final story, "In This Way We Are Wise", stands separate from others in the collection. It is an autobiographical, first-person piece about a young man living in Jerusalem and witnessing the effects of terrorist violence on people's everyday lives. There is little wryness here; the tone is much more raw and bleak. "I feel old from this," the narrator says.
Many writers of fiction need to step away from the autobiographical in order to find their true voices. One senses from "In This Way We Are Wise" that the opposite may be true in Englander's case and that, cherishable though the stories in For the Relief of Unbearable Urges are, this writer will move beyond his influences in order to create still more outstanding work.
Nicholas Clee is the editor of the "Bookseller"