Tuesday, August 16, 2011

What are the of a Modern Middle-Aged Jewish Man? Stuart Nadler's Great New Collection, "The Book of Life," Contemplates Five of Them.

Oops.  This post went out by mistake yesterday.  I wrote it several weeks ago and scheduled it, instead of putting it on draft status.  But in that time, I wound up speaking to the folks at Reagan Arthur Books/Back Bay, and found that Mr. Nadler was coming to the midwest!

We are now hosting Stuart Nadler on Thursday, October 20, 7 pm. I should have held this a little closer to the event, but it's out, so here is my take on this wonderful collection of short stories...

Jewish angst. It’s probably been a part of culture for millennia. I suppose at one point, maybe for the first 100 years or so, we were pretty sure of ourselves, and there are plenty of Jews now that are pretty sure of themselves, but that still leaves a whole bunch of people who are all discomfort, questions, and anxiety.

Now we all can’t write like Philip Roth or Woody Allen, so much of our lives’ drama are flittered away as store clerks, mid-level bookkeepers, or if we really want to make our moms happy, doctors and lawyers. Since I’m not keeping up well with parenting expectations, it’s possible that software engineer is now also an acceptable occupation. I can assure you from personal experience that bookseller is not.

As all this is of interest to me, I picked up Stuart Nadler’s intriguingly angsty collection of short stories, The Book of Life, and found myself immersed in and delighted by his world of (pretty much) guys on the crossroads of their lives. Admittedly I was once again drawn in by the quotes from Darin Strauss and Frederick Reiken. Reiken said “Stuart Nadler has written seven of the most gorgeous, poignant, intricately crafted, and compulsively readable stories I have read in a long time.” Note: they have the same publisher. But this seems to be too enthusiastic to be a quote you give for a favor. Or maybe Reiken hasn’t read any stories in the last decade. I might be reading too much into it.

Nadler’s guys are somewhat distanced from their faith; one might be having an affair with his business partner’s daughter, while another, a divorcee estranged from both his son and father, brings the former to visit the latter, but can’t bring himself to participate in the reunion. And yet they keep getting called back to it.

The boys seem to be haunted by five things:
1) Family
2) Faith
3) Career*
4) Libido
5) Hairline

Regarding career, while there are several different occupations going on, the one that popped up a few times which held my interest was law, particularly lawyers just out of law school who are worked to death by their superiors, as represented in the story “Our Portion, Our Rock.” In another story, “The Moon Landing” that very hard ass (different name, but in a novel, I suspect they’d be the same person) shows up as the protagonist’s brother. You think he doesn’t like these hard asses, but in both stories, there is a humanity that does show up, so it’s hard to say.

“Our Portion, Our Rock” hits a lot of the themes on the head. 1) Eric’s girlfriend Jenny is pregnant but she doesn’t know if she wants to marry him. Eric is also caring for his father, who is deteriorating from ALS. 2) Eric is Jewish; Jenny is not—in this case, this is a sticking point. 3) Eric has that bullying supervisor. 4) Eric is friends with a law school classmate, Susan, who is married to Eric’s old friend Brian, a doctor. He introduced them. 5) From a conversation between Eric and Susan: “’I still have all my hair. It could be worse’. She took a long, large sip from her drink, reached out, and put her fingers in my hair. ‘Brian doesn’t’”

Oh, and Brian, by the way, has converted and is now Protestant(1, 2, 3, 4).

There’s no question that these guys don’t know where to go with their Jewishness. I sent the publisher my Indie Next quote, which are often done on the very last day, when you wind up saying something like “Nadler’s stories were very enjoyable. I liked them a lot.” I don’t’ know why I have a lot of stress about this, but I do, and I suspect other booksellers do too. And I try to pass that stress onto my booksellers. And guilt. Lots of it. “Don’t’ you want to help the books you love?” Do you want to be responsible for your favorite novel?” Note--we hardly get nonfiction advance copies anymore except for memoirs, which the Europeans group with fiction anyway. That’s for another blog post.

So here’s what I sent in:

The Book of Life, stories by Stuart Nadler, Reagan Arthur/Back Bay, 13.99, 9/11.
Work scuffles, messy affairs, the passage of loved ones, impending baldness—Nadler’s guy heroes seem to have no end of problems in this really smart and powerful collection of stories. Whether it’s Grandpa (only living relative) being fired from his congregation, your boss riding you at the law firm while Dad suffers from ALS, or your business partner’s daughter setting you up for some tasty blackmail, it seems as if there is no end of collateral damage when you shift into fifth to outrun your Jewish roots.
--Daniel Goldin, Boswell Book Company, Milwaukee, Wisconsin

I like that thing about outrunning your Jewish roots and the damage and stuff. So that’s why this rec is plopped into the middle of the post. Or the end, actually.The Book of Life was just published as a paperback original, at a fine price of under $14. One penny under, to be precise. I obviously have my own issues.