By Nathan Englander
Knopf. 339 pp. $25
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Reviewed by Sarah Weinman
For The Inquirer
nolead ends Nathan Englander debuted auspiciously with For the Relief of Unbearable Urges, a 1999 short story collection that drew comparisons to Philip Roth's Goodbye, Columbus for its searing, often satirical portraits of Jews in various stages of religious observance. Had Englander been born just a year earlier, it's highly likely he would have been included on Granta's list that year of "Best of Young American Novelists" age 35 and younger. Instead, the intervening eight years have seen a number of novelists, from Jonathan Safran Foer and Nicole Krauss to Tova Mirvis and Dara Horn, take the mantle of Jewish identity and mutate it in contemporaneous fashion in their fiction while Englander has seemed to go underground.
Now the long-awaited novel is here, and The Ministry of Special Cases appears to echo Roth's own gambit in moving away from direct Ashkenazi Jewish experience toward something broader. Where Roth, with Letting Go, attempted to write the great campus novel, Englander here seeks to comment on the effect of Argentina's dirty war as filtered through its Jewish community. In both cases, the approach is ambitious and wide-ranging. Nevertheless, for a number of reasons, Englander's maiden novel may wind up being viewed the same way as Roth's has been: as a transitional work by a writer finally in sync with his natural voice.
The first third of Englander's novel is taken up with the goings-on of Kaddish Poznan - gravestone defacer, actively non-religious Jew, and Don Quixote figure - and his tightly wound family: long-suffering wife Lillian and rebellious college-age son Pato. Their interactions are fraught with tension, often caustic, but also interlaced with a dry sense of humor. Take Pato's admonition to his father for his willingness to work for the Jewish community even as he is ostracized by them for that very job (he erases names on tombstones because the descendants of the deceased are embarrassed by their forebears): "They reject you since birth and you still play the role they gave you."
Sometimes the humor borders on the ridiculous: One chapter in particular, where Kaddish - suckered out of money owed him by a gambling-addicted doctor - agrees to barter his wares for rhinoplasty for himself and his wife, hits its satirical targets with near-deadly precision. In just a few pages, Englander comments subtly on the desire for assimilation, correcting appearance flaws, and the conflicting wants of older versus younger generations (as Pato opts to keep his nose, thank you very much).
As the novel progresses, the nose theme takes further hold - not only because Lillian's is altered and reformed, but also as a metaphor for both deliberate and unwanted trouble. As this is the start of the Dirty War, in 1976, the specter of unexplained disappearances turns into harsh reality when Pato is taken away, presumably the latest in a slew of so-called rabid young activists to fall under suspicion by the secret police. As a result, The Ministry of Special Cases transforms into a labyrinthine odyssey of bureaucratic hell, unexpected interrogations, and emotionally resonant observations regarding how a child's absence devastates the family unit, with battle lines finely drawn between Kaddish the pessimist and Lillian the aggressive optimist.
The tone switch is expected, and perhaps a bit heavy-handed, preceded as it is by a tense confrontation between Kaddish and Pato that sees each damning the other's very existence. And perhaps in seeking to play the story against a broader canvas, Englander has created a tale where his instinctive wit and great ear for offbeat observations clashes with a greater desire for emotional empathy. It takes daring to make Kaddish, Lillian and Pato as deeply flawed as they are. But by dipping in and out of making them characters or constructs, and not deciding one way or the other, The Ministry of Special Cases misses out on being a definitive read. Early in the novel, Kaddish wonders, "What's wrong with ritual? It doesn't hurt for some things to stay the same." For Englander, his quest to be different is admirable, but one cannot help but suspect that his future writings will harken back to the themes of his short stories, though sharpened and refined as his writing matures even further.