Books: When there's death at the end of the tunnel

For the Relief of Unbearable Urges by Nathan Englander Faber pounds 9.99 The Extra Man by Jonathan Ames Scribner pounds 6.99
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In "The Tumblers," one of nine stories in his arrestingly inventive debut collection, Nathan Englander tells of an unlikely escape from the Nazis of a group of Jews from the legendary shtetl of Chelm. The escape is unplanned, illogical; it unfolds whimsically. However, it is precisely life's lack of logic, its wanton and accidental character, the luck or trick of a moment deciding who lives or dies, that Englander so effectively conveys. While the followers of one of Chelm's two rebbes are rounded up on a train, the followers of the other, more austere religious leader run off through a railway tunnel. At the other end, they board a second train. This contains a circus troupe, into which the Jews miraculously make themselves blend and so get away.

As the stricter rebbe's followers - among them the story's protagonist, the resourceful Mendel - disappear into the tunnel's darkness, one little girl, the orphan Yocheved, catches sight of her uncle from the other rebbe's party "being shoved, brutalised, beaten into a boxcar, her sweet uncle who would carve her treats out of marzipan: flowers, and fruits, and peacocks whose feathers melted on her tongue".

She stands transfixed in the daylight at the edge of the tunnel. Simultaneously, the German guards appear leading their fierce German shepherd dogs alongside the doomed train taking Yocheved's uncle and so many others to their fate.

The brief passage in which Englander describes what happens next bears comparison, in its brimming, poetic sense of irony, with Samuel Beckett. It announces Englander as a narrator of great compassion and vitality; one who, having absorbed a tradition and a folklore packed with mystery and meaning, is left with the inescapable conclusion that the idea of meaning itself is a mystery: "Before the dog could reach her and tear the clothes from her skin and the skin from her bones, the sniper on the train put a single bullet through her neck. The bullet left a ruby hole that resembled a charm an immodest girl might wear. Yocheved touched a finger to her throat and turned her gaze towards the sky, wondering from where such a strange gift had come. Only Mendel looked back at the sound of the shot; the others had learned the lessons of Sodom."

Quite apart from the grim beauty conjured up in this sequence, the resonance of the phrases, "an immodest girl" and "the lessons of Sodom", not to mention Yocheved's "gaze towards the sky", is immense.

More of life's irony and randomness are to be found in "The Twenty-seventh Man", the opening piece. This concerns the arrest, in Stalin's Soviet Union, of a number of leading Yiddish writers. Except that one of them is not a leading writer; he is a modest, unpublished admirer of the others. When he finds himself among them, albeit to share a cruel fate, his disbelief is exquisite. Amid the squalid torture, he is a man virtually flattered to death.

Several of Englander's characters are given well-rounded form despite the brevity of their appearance. They include a fantasising female Orthodox Jewish wig-maker (married Orthodox women are forbidden to display their natural hair); a too soft-hearted psychiatric patient; a Jewish convert who experiences an epiphany in a taxi; a rabbi forced to take a job as a department-store Santa Claus; and - in the title story - a Hassidic man denied sex by his wife but given special dispensation by his rebbe to visit a prostitute.

The final piece is about everyday life in Jerusalem in the face of terrorist bombings. It seems intended as a coda, in which the problems faced by Jews down the centuries, and implicit in the other stories, are given a contemporary context and immediacy. It represents such a change of pace, however, that it demonstrates nothing so effectively as the fact that, while modern Israeli literature has severed the umbilical cord with European, notably Yiddish, traditions, Englander himself - a New Yorker now living in Israel - has not.

While Englander has departed from New York, Jonathan Ames, another young Jewish writer of fiction, has stayed. Indeed, his new novel is almost an apologia for the seedy side of New York life. It strives to achieve a Scott Fitzgerald- like elegance for a tale of a confused young fellow named Louis wrestling with the undesirability of inhabit- ing a woman's body while experiencing the desirability of wearing women's clothing.

He comes to New York on the run from the middle-class respectability of Princeton, New Jersey, and holes up with a faded yet slightly raffish litterateur of a landlord, Henry, a marvellous character whose sexuality may be as muddied as Louis's. Henry is an elderly gigolo who preys on ancient women whose only remaining glories are financial. His flat is dark, sordid and flea-ridden, yet Louis feels comfortable there, its owner's eccentricities providing a cover, justification and even occasionally an inspiration for his own.

Ames's writing is at its best when expressing Louis's self-consciousness, whether in slipping off secretly to a club worked by trans-sexual hookers or matter-of-factly voicing his vulnerability: ``It was not unusual for me to feel guilty without reason." In particular, he has a bra fetish and this, along with similar tendencies whose abnormalities trouble him constantly, leads to some moments of poignancy and others of hilarity.

Ultimately, however, the discrepancies - of motivation, plot and character - remain unresolved. For all Ames's craft and sensitivity, and his studied demystification, the grotesque and repellent remain uninvitingly grotesque and repellent.