Kalooki Nights

By Howard Jacobson

Simon & Schuster. 450 pp. $26

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Howard Jacobson and I are not, you will be glad to know, related to each other. We are friends. But that began when, after reading his first novel,

Coming From Behind

, in 1991, I wrote him a fan letter, so you may be assured that my enthusiasm for his writing predated any personal considerations.

Since then I have followed his work, through seven subsequent novels and some nonfiction books, with an admiration that has grown steadily, interrupted only when I found his No More Mister Nice Guy (1998) so repellently obscene that I gave up the attempt to read it after just a few dozen pages.

That book was, I think, an aberration. All of Jacobson's other books have demonstrated a scintillating brilliance of style and a breadth and profundity of human understanding rare in the art of our time, coupled with a freewheeling humor even rarer in combination with such weighty qualities.

The Making of Henry, published in 2004, marked a further step forward in maturity and poise - a brilliant and scintillating book. Kalooki Nights, which appeared last year in England and was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize, is not just a brilliant and scintillating book. It is a great book. I think it is the best thing Jacobson has ever done. It has the funniness of Coming From Behind and Peeping Tom, the zest and warmth of The Mighty Walzer, the humanity of The Making of Henry, and the sheer intellectual and philosophical passion of The Very Model of a Man, which is conceived as the autobiography of Cain.

Kalooki Nights, whose title refers to the Jewish card game that the narrator's glamorous mother spends her evenings playing, bowled me over. I laughed out loud about 15 times an hour. Jacobson's writing here is like a prose equivalent of Rilke's poetry - just as so many lines in Rilke throw you for a loop with a last word that's at a roughly 150-degree angle from what you thought you were waiting for, so there is, in this book, scarcely a sentence that doesn't confound expectation.

Yet in all this there is not the slightest trace of arbitrariness. It is rather that, in Jacobson's world, thoughts as well as actions have consequences, which do not always adhere to the thinker's or doer's intention. Not one facile assumption can be left unquestioned; every familiar concept of Jewishry and of anti-Semitism is subjected to merciless reassessment; and every seemingly watertight exercise of logic must be reexamined and worried within an inch of its life.

Oh, you want to know what the book is about? This is essentially the account, rendered by Max Glickman, the cartoonist scion of a Northern English family of rationalist, nonpracticing Jews, of the retrospective relation of contemporary Jews to the Holocaust. Balancing the Glickmans' alienation from Jewish religious practices is the orthodoxy of their neighbor Manny Washinsky, his parents, and his brother Asher.

When Asher falls in love with a gentile girl - a shikseh - the entire course of his family's life is derailed. Mayhem and murder follow, and Maxie is the chronicler of the results. He too does profanity with the best (and worst) of its exponents. But where No More Mister Nice Guy seemed to wallow in obscenity for its own sake, in Kalooki Nights the profane functions as an entirely legitimate safety valve for the blistering strength of feeling that bubbles just beneath the jeweled surface of Jacobson's prose, forged out of one ravishingly shaped paragraph after another.

Many years ago, asked by the students in a criticism course I taught at a Chicago university for a reading list, and preferring practice to aesthetic theory, I surprised them by recommending just two books - Fielding's Tom Jones and Philip Roth's Letting Go - on the ground that my students were going to write English, and these were the two best-written books in the English language I could think of.

Kalooki Nights is a masterpiece on that same level. It is a moral treatise as intellectually challenging as Proust, and an entertainment funnier than Rabelais. There are a few small solecisms. This American edition corrects a couple that appeared in the British publication, leaves others standing, and invents some new mistakes of its own, including the egregious and presumptuous dis-correction of a perfectly good "whoever" into a quite erroneous "whomever" in one originally immaculate Jacobson sentence.

But what triumphantly remains is a work of genius. You have heard of the man who cried all the way to the bank. Reading Kalooki Nights, you will laugh all the way to the concluding funeral, and the revelatory encounter that it brings about.

Bernard Jacobson, who studied classics, philosophy and history at Oxford, was program annotator for the Philadelphia Orchestra in the 1980s and now serves in the same capacity for the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia.