Nathan Englander grew up in what he calls "a little Jewish biosphere." The tightknit Orthodox community on New York's Long Island was also "right wing, xenophobic and anti-intellectual," according to the 29-year-old author. There he received "an old-style shtetl-mentality education" with an unvarying message: "You are an Orthodox Jew, and if you are miserable then you should be a miserable Orthodox Jew." Bit by bit, between adolescence and adulthood, Englander, once devout, lost his religion. At the same time he discovered writing. It was, he says, his way out of his claustrophobic world.
It also became his obsession. By the time he finished graduate school, Englander was writing all day, six days a week. Since last summer, he's been the talk of publishing for the reported $350,000 advance he received for his astonishing debut, For the Relief of Unbearable Urges (205 pages. Knopf. $22). That's an unheard-of sum for a collection of stories by any writer, let alone an unknown. "It's so much bigger than I could have imagined," Englander says of the deal. "I keep telling Knopf I would probably have let them have the book for 20 books off their backlist." The real shock, however, is not the advance but the stories themselves. Located everywhere from Stalin's Russia to the bomb-pocked streets of Jerusalem, Englander's fiction is equally diverse stylistically. One story reads like a Gogol fable; another has the immediacy of deadline reporting. And everywhere he focuses--with an eye more compassionate than cold--on the life he worked so hard to escape: the world of Orthodox Jews. In this world, ritual is reality, but mystery lurks everywhere.
Like Flannery O'Connor's God-haunted characters, Englander's people are constantly being waylaid by passions that they neither control nor understand. In the book's best story, "The Wig," a wigmaker becomes obsessed with obtaining a young man's flowing locks. She sees her lost youth in that hair. "When she cut his hair, she bound and then numbered each of the curls separately, like the bricks of a museum-bound temple." In one sentence the author expertly conveys both the depth of the woman's passion and the tragicomic fanaticism with which she pursues her quest.
Escaping Orthodox Judaism, Englander says, allowed him to discover "that maybe a secular Jew isn't a bum." For the last two years he's led what he calls a "radically secular" life in Jerusalem, where he can soak up the culture but forgo the religion. While Englander is steeped in Judaica, he insists, "I'm not writing only for Jews. It's very important to me that these stories be universal. If it's only for Jews, then it's flawed fiction." Flawless it's not--there are a couple of stories that read like merely very good writers-workshop stuff. But parochial it's not, either. Anyone anywhere who loves good stories will take these wonderful tales to heart.