‘Unnatural Jews’

Bad things happen when Jews move to the country, in fiction, anyway.

07/25/2012
Special To The Jewish Week
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 “Nature, he couldn’t help noticing lately, was trying to scare the s--- out of him. F---ing with him.”

 — from Shalom Auslander’s “Hope:  A Tragedy”

Ah, summer. The warm sun, the ripening gardens, the countryside a riot of green. And the Jewish writer, out of sorts. Consider our most recent example: Shalom Auslander’s debut novel, “Hope: A Tragedy,” in which the author imagines Anne Frank alive and unwell in his hero’s attic in verdant, upstate New York. Beyond the audacity of its premise (“Blow me” is one of Anne Frank’s first lines), Auslander’s novel taps into one of the most durable themes in Jewish-American fiction: Jew moves to the country — and bad things happen.

A catalog of works that hew to this narrative would include, though not be limited to, Saul Bellow’s “Herzog” (wife betrays husband in country), Bernard Malamud’s “Dubin’s Lives” (husband betrays wife in country), Cynthia Ozick’s landmark story, “The Pagan Rabbi” (nature-loving rabbi commits suicide), Philip Roth’s “American Pastoral” (hero’s daughter, unmoored in country, becomes a terrorist), Rebecca Goldstein’s “Mazel” (girl walks barefoot in woods, drowns herself), and most recently Auslander’s “Hope: A Tragedy” (spoiler alert: hero moves to country, dies in house fire).

We should be talking about this.

For various reasons — the strangeness of the country in the experience of most American Jews, the strain of Judaic thought that associates nature with the pagan realm — the rural environment emerges mostly in Jewish-American imaginative writing as alien, if not an outright hostile locale. Contrarily, the city is the more “natural” place to encounter Jewish protagonists. The Jewish protagonist in the country is something of a man bites dog story. Herein lies its appeal as a premise. The Jewish hero is never simply in the country. He must go there on some sort of (misguided) quest, which usually ends badly.       

Like Jewish hero’s before him, Solomon Kugel in “Hope: A Tragedy,” moves to the country with his wife, Bree, and son, Jonah, to begin anew.  Precipitating this impulse is the sudden illness and near death of Jonah and the subsequent strain on the Kugel’s marriage, which he attributes at least partly to their cramped urban confines. “The city,” Auslander writes, “seemed filled with danger and disease, and every room of their apartment carried a memory of some disagreement, some argument between them, or, worse, some memory of Jonah’s illness — the couch upon which he lay unmoving, the blanket they had wrapped him in as they dashed to the hospital.” 

Exacerbating this painful personal history is the communal history of Jewish suffering, which Kugel’s mother pounds into his psyche relentlessly from the time of his childhood, even though their familial connection to the Holocaust as fifth-generation Americans is remote.  “Those sons of bitches,” she intones repeatedly in reference to the Nazis, no matter the context, something of a running joke in the novel.     

What appeals to Kugel about the particular rural town to which they decamp, Stockton, is precisely its apparent remove from history altogether: “No one famous had lived there, no famous battles had been waged there, no famous movements arose there, no famous concerts had been held there.  ... Stockton’s non-history was a matter of pride for the townspeople, and had, of late, begun to attract many former city dwellers, urban professional families, and young couples looking for a home unburdened by the past, unencumbered by history.”

The rub, of course, is that one cannot escape history, even in places like Stockton, the remotest of country backwaters. No sooner do the Kugels set up housekeeping than our hero hears noises in the attic, which he hopes are only mice but turns out to be none other than Anne Frank, withered and smelling of decay yet doggedly at work on a new book. 

The action unfolds in deadly serious farce as Kugel contemplates strategies to free himself of his tenant, but mostly — and hilariously — agonizes over his predicament. “I’m not dragging Anne Frank down the stairs, honey,” he declares at one point to his wife, “I’m not throwing Anne f---ing Frank over my shoulder, kicking and screaming, and dropping her on the front lawn of my house, I’m sorry, I’m just not doing it.” Anne Frank’s emergence, and the downright nuisance she makes of herself, exposes the folly of Kugel’s effort to “start anew” by escaping into the leafy embrace of rural America. 

What interests me here is the way in which Auslander makes use of the pastoral setting to reinforce his most sweeping point. The country emerges as lovely and verdant, but all the more pernicious for it, its refreshments obscuring the harsh realities of the “real” world and our attendant human obligations. Auslander exposes this pastoral illusion, so to speak, during a scene in which Kugel attempts to track down his duplicitous real estate agent (named Eve, of course) to complain about the human surprise in the attic of his new home and chances upon an attractive couple house-shopping. It doesn’t escape Kugel, who considers warning the couple — the Cohens, we later learn — that they are about to make the same mistake that he and Bree made, lured astray by the pastoral promise. White houses. Lovely trees. Safe children. All lies, the narrative suggests. Nothing grows in Kugel’s garden. The squirrels are “assholes.” Fresh road kill smear the highways.         

The problem with this narrative — or, rather, the accumulation of such narratives in the Jewish-American canon — is partly that they tend to ossify stereotypical notions of Jews being urbanites alone in America.  But more importantly, they dismiss the substantive imaginative possibilities of the country, a practical birthright of the American writer.  What writers like Auslander rightly reject in their country narratives is the sentimental version of pastoralism, the fantasy dating at least to Virgil that one can shrug off the corrupt social realm and escape into the green embrace of the unspoiled country. 

Yet, as Leo Marx argued 50 years ago in his important book, “The Machine in the Garden:  Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America,” what unites the classic works in the unsentimental American pastoral tradition is not their rejection of the city for the country, but their complex negotiations between the promise and challenges of both dynamic American sites. That is, Thoreau’s “Walden” and Melville’s “Moby-Dick” and Cather’s “O Pioneers!” — to summon just three popular examples — do not represent facile renunciations of the social contract, but radical, and radically different, revisions to its terms. In summarily dismissing the pastoral realm as a viable Jewish space, Jewish writers in America have pretty much ceded this terrain rather than contribute their own voice to this important and ongoing American dialogue.   

And yet, and yet. There’s a wonderfully strange moment late in Auslander’s novel when Kugel chances upon a dying fawn by the side of the road. As Kugel leans over the stricken fawn, he notices that the other deer look toward him with hope in their eyes. Rather than flee the scene, or call for help, or put the poor fawn out of its misery, Kugel places his fingers inside the fawn’s wound and “feels its heart thumping against the tips of his fingers,” until it stops. He removes his hand from the wound, covered with blood, holds them to his nose, and “inhaled deeply, and then, slowly, slowly, he placed them into his mouth and closed his eyes.” It’s a single, numinous moment of genuine contact between Kugel and this country animal. 

I’m not certain what to make of Kugel’s final gesture, exactly. This strange communion. It remains just beyond the reader’s grasp, perhaps, and maybe even beyond the author’s grasp, like many of our richest literary moments. Yet the moment is real and visceral and moving, and haunts the book, even more so for me than the moments with Anne Frank. Auslander’s deer is not quite Thoreau’s pond, or Melville’s sea, or Cather’s plowed field. But it’s a good start for the Jewish-American novelist in the country. n

Andrew Furman, an English professor at Florida Atlantic University, is the author of the memoir, “My Los Angeles in Black and (Almost) White” and two works of literary criticism: “Israel Through the Jewish-American Imagination” and” Contemporary Jewish-American Writers and the Multicultural Dilemma.” His essays, reviews, and fiction have appeared in such publications as Poets & Writers, Oxford American and Ecotone.

Comments

as a longtime rural Jew who knows a few others , some transplants, some native of a small nearby city, i am disappointed to read that tragedy is the result to all protagonists of books about rural Jews. i get on fine, life is pretty uneventful usually.

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