Long Islander's literary debut a hit
First-time authors with a collection of unconventional literary stories typically earn a place on the publishing food chain near the lowly associate who slogs through the unsolicited manuscript slush pile.
How, then, to explain Nathan Englander?
The 30-year-old Long Islander's debut short story collection, "For the Relief of Unbearable Urges,'' (Knopf, 1999), released in paperback this month by Vintage, is in its 12th printing, with more than 80,000 copies in print. It's been translated into Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, Italian, Turkish and Hungarian.
Critics gushed. "Pitch-perfect,'' Newsweek said. "One of the classiest, most assured, impressive literary debuts I've come across in ten years of reviewing books,'' according to Susan Miron in The Philadelphia Enquirer.
"Oy Wonder!'' declared The Washington Post.
Because Englander's milieu is Orthodox Judaism and his luminous style blends fabulism and history with laugh-out-loud humor, he has been compared to Philip Roth, Saul Bellow and Bernard Malamud. Englander's stories were once described as "Isaac Bashevis Singer on crack.''
Englander shrugs off the superlatives. "I like to mix and match them,'' he said. "I'm going with Mel Brooks and Ionesco today.''
Commercial success has caught up to the critical acclaim. Film rights have been sold to go with Englander's reported $350,000 advance, an extraordinary sum for nine short stories by an unknown.
If this is all not enough to cause much gnashing of teeth among aspiring -- and unpublished -- fiction writers, the dude has the coolest hair in contemporary American letters.
Englander's is big hair, yet not in a cheesy blow-dried club-hopping way. It's a wild brown mane of chunky, cascading chestnut locks with a touch of neo-grunge. It's more Tarzan than Kenny G.
It's the first thing he's asked about, a hook in all the pieces written about him and he's itching to shave it off and just leave the long hair thing behind on some barbershop floor.
"I've got a few gray spots, but at least it's not falling out,'' he said. "I'm big on superstition. It's like the lucky socks you won't change until you finish the novel. I'm feeling a lot of pressure on the hair front. It's scary to get rid of it. You know what happened to Samson.''
Big hair and all, his publisher sent Englander on a lavish four-month international promotion tour.
"I was in Israel (he lives in Jerusalem), flew to London for some events and then to Barcelona to launch the Spanish edition, and I just flew in from Barcelona to New York,'' Englander said, speaking on the phone from a Manhattan hotel.
Talk about livin' la vida loca.
Englander will alight Tuesday in Albany, courtesy of the New York State Writers Institute.
It's a long way from the insular Orthodox Jewish neighborhood in West Hempstead, on Long Island, where Englander's world was closely circumscribed by yeshiva, synagogue, kosher rules and Orthodox ritual.
For a time, Englander was a true believer in the religious zealotry that flourished among his family's cloistered community.
As a teenager, Englander rebelled and broke away from what he suggested amounted to a kind of brain-washing cult.
"I had a right-wing, xenophobic, anti-intellectual, fire-and-brimstone, free-thought-free, sthtetl-mentality substandard education,'' Englander has said. "We were a bunch of little zealots coming home on the school bus and announcing things like it's a sin to rip toilet paper on Shabbos. We'd out-religious the next guy.''
And those were the nice things he had to say about his Orthodox upbringing.
Instead of channeling that anger into something self-destructive, he willed himself to become an intellectual and a literary person. A reader first. And then, a writer.
He attended the State University of New York at Binghamton and majored in literature and Judaic studies.
"My family didn't have money and my choices were SUNY or SUNY,'' Englander said. "Going to Binghamton was very exotic to me at the time, coming from my very sheltered world.''
Englander quenched a long-denied thirst for popular culture by devouring novels and consuming movies and TV. He later learned the craft of fiction at the highly regarded Iowa Writers Workshop, where his mentors included James Alan McPherson, Frank Conroy and Marilynne Robinson.
His most potent writerly influences, obvious from his stories, are Gogol, Camus, Kafka and Singer.
Englander's stories manage to be mesmerizingly crafted, wildly inventive and profoundly moral. In the title story, a Hasidic man whose wife will no longer engage in conjugal relations visits his rabbi and receives special dispensation to engage the services of a prostitute. In "The Tumblers,'' a group of Polish Jews being deported to Auschwitz during World War II are put on the wrong train in a mix-up and save their lives by learning the art of gymnastics with a troupe of traveling acrobats.
The stories sometimes lampoon Orthodox Judaism, but do it in an endearing way that never lapses into a mean-spirited screed. In fact, Englander remains on good terms with his parents, his sisters and former neighborhoods who remain in the fold.
"When the book came out I was nervous, wondering what their reaction would be,'' Englander said. "It was the grown-up version of being called to the principal's office.''
But his family and friends from the old world -- Englander calls himself "utterly secular'' now -- gave the book their blessing.
"My mom hasn't had to face off with anybody in the supermarket as far as I know,'' he said. He cut off further questions about his family.
"I guard my family. It's not like my dad's running shine. But I treat them as off-topic,'' he said.
Englander will talk about his life in Jerusalem, where's he's lived for the past four years, and his girlfriend, an Israeli, who recently began graduate school. "It's nice that you can be poor in Jerusalem and have a nice life,'' he said.
He writes six days a week, pen on yellow legal pads, and revises and rewrites obsessively. Some stories take years to germinate. He's currently working on his first novel, set in Argentina, where he spent several months traveling and taking photographs of people.
"A novel is a scary thing,'' he said. "I've always thought long and this is the time to try the long form.''
When he needs a break from writing, Englander hops on his Cannondale mountain bike and is in the mountains on the outskirts of Jerusalem in five minutes.
After tying back that parachute of luxuriant curls, that is.