‘Din­ner at the Cen­ter of the Earth,’ by Nathan Eng­lan­der

Nathan Eng­lan­der’s sec­ond novel, ‘Din­ner at the Cen­ter of the Earth,’ evokes the specter of Ariel Sharon. And a whole lot more.

Forward Magazine - - Con­tents - Knopf, 272 pages, $26.95 By Nathan Eng­lan­der

In “A Horse Walks Into a Bar,” David Gross­man’s Man Booker Prize-win­ning novel, Do­valeh Green­stein stages, un­der the pre­text of a standup com­edy set, a moral reck­on­ing, a pub­lic wrestling match with his demons, which of necessity are also, in part, Is­rael’s demons. On a dingy stage in a dingy bar in the dingy (in Do­valeh’s as­sess­ment) city of Ne­tanya, the jokeas-break­down con­cerns not only fam­ily his­tory — Holo­caust-mad­dened mother; op­pres­sive, vi­o­lent fa­ther — but na­tional his­tory too, a cros­sex­am­i­na­tion of the coun­try’s ex­pe­ri­ence, re­plete with army train­ing camps for ado­les­cents, and its in­ter­sec­tion with in­di­vid­ual lives in the process of des­per­ate sur­vival.

“Horse” is a mas­ter class in tone, in tonal shifts and tonal com­bi­na­tions, a mar­velously suc­cinct set piece that, in its pre­car­i­ous, nearly sti­fling in­ti­macy, man­ages the feat of be­ing ten­der and sad and heart-achingly funny. I men­tion it now be­cause it haunted my read­ing of Nathan Eng­lan­der’s new novel, “Din­ner at the Cen­ter of the Earth,” an­other book set mostly in Is­rael, an­other at­tempt to drill down into in­di­vid­ual con­scious­ness against the con­text of a coun­try that is pro­foundly sig­nif­i­cant and po­ten­tially un­in­hab­it­able and oc­ca­sion­ally morally haz­ardous.

Eng­lan­der first came to the read­ing pub­lic’s at­ten­tion in 1999 with the pub­li­ca­tion of “For the Re­lief of Un­bear­able Urges,” which might be some­what re­duc­tively sum­ma­rized as a col­lec­tion of sto­ries about the in­ner lives — a lit­tle bit dirty, furtive and guilty, sur­pris­ingly re­lat­able — of Or­tho­dox Jews. Eng­lan­der chron­i­cled his char­ac­ters, in­clud­ing an unloved hus­band re­quest­ing a rab­bini­cal dis­pen­sa­tion to visit a pros­ti­tute for the epony­mous re­lief and a woman driven to con­tem­plat­ing the mur­der of the hus­band who has re­fused to grant her a di­vorce for eigh­teen years, with a light touch, a sym­pa­thet­i­cally amused eye, at­tuned to the ab­sur­di­ties of their sit­u­a­tions. The master­stroke of the sto­ries was this: although the predica­ments of Eng­lan­der’s peo­ple were of­ten in­ti­mately con­nected to their or­tho­doxy, their re­sponse was sim­ply hu­man. It isn’t that Eng­lan­der was above ridi­cul­ing these char­ac­ters; it was that he would not make them ridicu­lous. The sto­ries, with their whiff of shtetl fa­ble, their con­vinc­ing mix­ture of para­ble and re­al­ism, were win­ning and widely lauded.

Eng­lan­der’s sec­ond col­lec­tion of sto­ries, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank,” brought more in­flu­ences to the ta­ble. As the tit­u­lar story sug­gests, Ray­mond Carver was a clear pre­cur­sor, though Eng­lan­der took Carver’s econ­omy and ran with it into cu­ri­ous corners, once more cast­ing a tight but soft net around Or­tho­dox Jews and their trou­bles: the dawn­ing re­al­iza­tion, say, that one’s hus­band would not, were he a Gen­tile and in the event of an­other Holo­caust, be very righteous; the fan­tas­ti­cal con­fronta­tion with child­hood rab­bis, one’s dis­ap­pointed mother, and a hugely preg­nant, home­bound wife, all naked, dur­ing an im­pul­sive visit to a peep show. The sto­ries oc­ca­sion­ally flirted with mis­placed whimsy, with overly and overtly pre­cious han­dling, but they were on the whole mor­dant and el­e­gant.

“Din­ner at the Cen­ter of the Earth” is Eng­lan­der’s sec­ond novel. Like his first, “The Min­istry of Spe­cial Cases,” which fo­cused on the

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