Nathan Englander has quickly become one of the most talked about new voices in literature. At the age of 28, his debut story collection, For the Relief of Unbearable Urges, was released to extraordinary reviews from both critics and fellow writers. Ann Beattie wrote, “Every so often there’s a new voice that entirely revitalizes the short story . . . It’s happening again with Nathan Englander . . . It’s the best story collection I’ve read in ages.” Drawing comparisons to such greats as Isaac Bashevis Singer, Bernard Malamud, and Philip Roth, Englander writes with a compassion and wisdom that bely his youth. His joyful, yet wrentchingly sad stories reveal human nature through the lens of Orthodox Judaism, a religious tradition with which he is intimately familiar.
Englander grew up in a strictly Orthodox home and neighborhood on Long Island, New York. He studied at a yeshiva through his high school years and observed all religious rules and traditions. It was expected that he would continue his Orthodox education, but instead, he insisted on entering the State University of New York at Binghamton where he pursued a liberal arts education. Englander spent a life-changing junior year abroad in Jerusalem. There he abandoned his Orthodox faith, immersed himself in literature and began to discover himself as a writer. When he returned to the States, he continued writing and later graduated from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.
While the stories in For the Relief of Unbearable Urges invite readers into the world of Hasidic and Orthodox Jews, they also explore universal themes of love, fear, identity, vanity, and shame. Englander’s characters face and sometimes overcome spiritual, moral, and sexual crises in settings as diverse as Russia, Israel, and Brooklyn. In one story, a group of Jews doomed for a Nazi death camp accidently boards a train of circus performers and saves themselves by impersonating acrobats. In the book’s hilarious title story, a Hasidic man gets special dispensation from his rabbi to see a prostitute. Through these powerfully inventive, often haunting stories, For the Relief of Unbearable Urges reveals Englander as a truly gifted and original storyteller.
Excerpt from For the Relief of Unbearable Urges (1999), from the story “In this Way We Are Wise”
Three blasts. Like birds. They come through the window, wild and lost. They are trapped under the high-domed ceiling of the café, darting round between us, striking walls and glass, knocking the dishes from the shelves. And we know, until they stop their terrible motion, until they cease swooping and darting and banging into the walls, until they alight, come to rest, exhausted, spent, there is nothing at all to do.
Plates in halves and triangles on the floor. A group of ceramic mugs, fat and split, like overripe fruit. The chandelier, a pendulum, still swings.
The owner, the waitress, the other few customers, sit. I am up at the windows. I am watching the people pour around the corner, watching them run toward us, mouths unhinged, pulling at hair, scratching at faces. They collapse and puff up, hop about undirected.
Like wild birds frightened.
Like people possessed, tearing at their forms trying to set something free.
Jerusalemites do not spook like horses. They do not fly like moths into the fire.
They have come to abide their climate. Terror as second winter, as part of their weather. Something that comes and then is gone.
Selected WorkFor the Relief of Unbearable Urges (1999)