gazettelogo.gif - 2815 BytesThe Sunday Gazette
Arts & Entertainment
03/26/00, G-01

By KATY MOELLER, Staff Writer

ALBANY -- The first editor to accept one of Nathan Englander's short stories for publication described his style as "Isaac Bashevis Singer on crack."

Today, four years after his first story was published, literary critics across the country are comparing Englander, a 30-year-old Long Island native who lives in Jerusalem, to renowned Jewish writers Bernard Malamud, Saul Bellow and Philip Roth. They're also praising the young author's fresh, new voice.

"Mr. Englander's voice is distinctively his own -- daring, funny, exuberant, keenly attuned to both the absurdities of life and its undertow of sadness and disappointment," wrote Michiko Kakutani of The New York Times in a glowing review of Englander's debut collection of stories "For the Relief of Unbearable Urges."

Overnight sensation

Englander became something of an overnight sensation in the publishing world when his nine-story collection came out last year -- partly because his publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, paid a remarkable $350,000 advance for the book and planned an initial printing of 30,000 copies.

The book, which made many "Best Books of 1999" lists and became a bestseller, is in its 12th printing (80,000 books total). It has just been released in paperback.

To top it off, an independent filmmaker has approached Englander about bringing one of the book's stories, "Reb Kringle" -- a story about an Orthodox Jew whose wife insists that he work as a department store Santa Claus every Christmas -- to the big screen.

"My life has changed utterly and completely," said Englander in a recent phone interview from his parents' home on Long Island. "I recognize that I've been handed a dream."

Englander will appear at the University at Albany as part of the New York State Writers Institute's Spring Writers Series. The author will read from his work at 8 p.m. Tuesday in Assembly Hall of the Campus Center at the university's uptown campus.

At 4 p.m. Tuesday, Englander will hold an informal writing seminar in the Campus Center's Assembly Hall. The reading and seminar -- which are free -- are being cosponsored by the Writers Institute and Greater Capital Region Teacher Center.

Raised as an Orthodox Jew but now living an "utterly secular" life as a "God-fearing atheist," Englander's stories focus on the always painful, sometimes absurd and often humorous struggles of Orthodox and Hassidic Jews in a range of settings -- Russia during the Stalinist purges, Poland during the Holocaust, and modern day New York City and Jerusalem.

Characters trapped

Englander, who felt intellectually and spiritually suffocated by his religious upbringing, said that many of the characters in his stories confront similarly confining circumstances -- all seem to be stuck, trapped or threatened in some way.

"For me, what ties the stories together is that they are all smashing up against the boundaries of a specific world," Englander said. "It's exploring people in different worlds looking to make the big decisions."

In one story, "The Gilgul of Park Avenue," a man with the undeniably WASPish name Charles Morton Luger is riding in a New York City taxi cab when "Ping!" -- he suddenly decides that he is an Orthodox Jew.

His wife responds to his revelation none too enthusiastically: "Why couldn't you have turned into a vegan? Or a liberal Democrat? Slept with your secretary for real ... If you have to be Jewish, why so Jewish?"

Englander grew up in an Orthodox neighborhood of West Hempstead on Long Island. He found school unstimulating and yearned for a way out of the cloistered religious community. To escape -- at least mentally -- he watched a lot of television. "Honestly, I'm amazed that I can think," he jokes now. "I still fight attention span issues."

One of Englander's teachers encouraged him to read secular literature, including the works of Orwell, Kafka and Camus; from then on, he was hooked.

Abandoning plans to live with his parents while studying business at a nearby college, Englander matriculated to the State University of New York at Binghamton. He double-majored in Judaic studies and literature, with an emphasis on creative writing.

"I met kids from different parts of Long Island. It was utterly eye opening. To me, it was like the U.N.," said Englander, who became a secular Jew while studying a year abroad in Jerusalem. "[SUNY Binghamton] allowed me to get in the direction I wanted to be in."

After college, Englander worked as a photographer's assistant and did some of his own photography, before deciding that his heart was really in writing. At the urging of a friend's mother, who is a children's book editor, he did his graduate work at the University of Iowa's Writers Workshop.

Englander's work got noticed by Lois Rosenthal, editor of Story magazine, and the first of three of his stories was published in the magazine in 1996. In 1998, he won the prestigious Pushcart Prize, awarded for short stories, essays and poems published by small presses and magazines.

Working odd jobs to make ends meet, Englander was just another struggling writer living in Jerusalem when his agent landed the lucrative book deal with Knopf.

Savoring success

So what has he done with the fortune that has come as a result of his newfound fame?

"I really can't figure out how I've used it -- but I've used a hell of a lot of it," he said. "I got a couple new pairs of shoes."

He also bought a computer with a color screen, which replaced his old portable Macintosh with a black-and-white screen. Regardless, he does most of his writing longhand -- usually in a cafe -- though he claims that he needs total silence. Englander has spent much of the last year promoting his book. On the heels of engagements in England and Spain, he'll be in a different American city virtually every day for the next several weeks.

That doesn't leave him a lot of time to work on a historical novel that he's writing about the Jews of Argentina, nor does it give him time to read as much as he would like -- two of his favorite writers and greatest influences are Nikolai Gogol and Franz Kafka.

But Englander isn't complaining. After all, the traveling gives him an opportunity to see family, friends and fans -- 500 turned out for one of his talks in Detroit last fall -- and now he doesn't have to worry about how he's going to pay next month's rent. "I traded one list of worries for another," Englander said. "I like this list better."

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