The Best Thing Since Gefilte Fish?

Shalom Auslander’s writing has already drawn comparisons to Philip Roth, Woody Allen—and even Franz Kafka. Since Auslander’s first collection of short stories, Beware of God, won’t hit stores until April 1, the hype may be premature—but it’s not unwarranted.

The book jacket photo of the author suggests that Auslander marks a break from the Jewish writer prototype. Roth and Allen are—like Kafka was before them—flesh-and-blood definitions of the Yiddish “oysgedart” (emaciated). The broad-shouldered Auslander, by contrast, looks like the kind of guy who could hold his own in a bar-fight.

After five millennia of persecution, Auslander seems ready to strike back.

As publishing house Simon and Schuster enthusiastically notes in the promotional material for Beware of God, Auslander is a two-time shoplifter (he stole a “West Side Story” LP at age 8 and a pair of jeans at age 16) who knows “the best places to buy hashish in [Jerusalem’s] Old City.”

But if Auslander wants to stake a claim to the title of American Jewish literature’s bona fide “bad boy,” his most compelling credential might be that he’s—gasp!—a college drop-out. After leaving school, Auslander rose through the ranks of a New York advertising agency. Somewhere along the way, he appears to have acquired a knack for writing in 30-second sound-bytes.

Auslander’s 14 brief sketches exhibit flashes of brilliance but also leave his readers hungering for more. With none of his stories running longer than 23 pages, Auslander has yet to prove that he is capable of offering his readers a fully-developed, multi-dimensional character.

The one possible exception is Bobo the Self-Hating Chimp, an emotionally complicated primate whose existence in the Bronx Zoo Monkey House serves as a self-mocking metaphor for the crisis of modernity.

In each of these vignettes, Auslander wrestles with issues that have vexed his literary forebears.

For example, in “Heimish Knows All,” Auslander follows in the steps of Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint and addresses the universal male predicament of puberty. Heimish is a rather priggish dog who reproaches his masturbating master, the newly-pubescent Shlomo. Heimish likens Shlomo’s sexual self-gratification to the horrors of the Holocaust: Shlomo “mopped the murdered Jewish souls off his hands with a couple of tissues, flushed them down the toilet and hid the Jergens behind the medicine rack,” Auslander writes.

Heimish’s internal monologue amounts to a believable anthropomorphization of the canine perspective. “Whoa, whoa,” Auslander writes—capturing Heimish’s well-founded fear of Shlomo’s newfound potency. “Watch where you’re pointing that thing.”

But Auslander’s unconvincing portrait of Shlomo makes the character come across as being closer to mid-life than middle school. When Auslander describes Heimish’s master groping the “pendulous breasts” of the “grossly overweight” Mrs. Malinowitz, he seems to forget that the lecherous Shlomo is—at least ostensibly—still only 10 years old.

By contrast, in “The Metamorphosis,” an adaptation of Kafka’s identically-titled 1916 short story, Auslander masters the tone of reverential parody.

Whereas in the Kafka original, Gregor Samsa wakes up in the body of a “monstrous vermin,” Auslander’s character, an 18 year-old Lubavitcher yeshiva student named Motty Aranson, finds himself “transformed in his bed into a very large goy.” Motty’s struggle to come to terms with his “burly construction worker” body reaches its humorous high point when he unzips his jeans and exclaims, “So that’s a foreskin.”

One of Auslander’s freshest vignettes is his “Startling Revelations from the Lost Book of Stan,” the saga of an American Jewish traveler who discovers the “Extremely Old Testament” in a dark cave in the Negev Desert.

Among those who rally to discredit the rediscovered scroll’s blasphemous conclusions are talk show host Bill O’Reilly (Kennedy School of Government MPA Class of 1996) and Iran’s Ayatollah Khamenei, who responds by opening a copy of the file named “Fatwa.doc” on his iMac and hitting the print icon.

The saga of Stan, which takes potshots at everyone from the Pope to Prudential Insurance, will garner giggles from all segments of society. Much of the rest of Auslander’s collection, however, seems narrowly targeted only to those who have suffered the trauma of a bris.

The narrator of “Holocaust Tips for Kids” exclaims: “Assimilating is when you stop being Jewish, like Woody Allen.” But the former Allen Konigsberg has proven that even a Jewish writer from Brooklyn can draw laughter from a crowd of gentiles. Likewise, Roth has garnered faithful fans far beyond the matzoh-ball belt.

Auslander may indeed be, as one of his peers has declared, “the freshest voice in Jewish literature since Philip Roth arrived on the scene.” But like gefilte fish, and Manischewitz wine, Auslander’s wit might be a delicacy that never finds a following outside the ethnic niche market.

—Reviewer Daniel J. Hemel can be reached at hemel@fas.harvard.edu.