Kalooki Nights by Howard Jacobson

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The Independent Culture

Howard Jacobson has always seemed the most moral of authors, as well as the most consistent in his concerns: how should one live if one is to call oneself a man? What does it mean to be Jewish? How far is the comfortable the enemy of the good? How does language itself change what it attempts to represent?

He is, too, the most meticulous of observers, never opting for the idle phrase or modifier. The defining quality of this combination of moral purpose, close inspection, and linguistic brilliance is something we don't have a word for. It's not wit, designed to make the speaker seem clever; not humour, intended to make the reader chuckle comfortably and continue precisely as before. Nor is it satire, which lies both by exaggeration and by omission. It is all these, and more, and Jacobson is one of the very few authors, living or dead, with the precision of judgment to carry it off.

In Kalooki Nights he has taken his skills to a new level and produced a novel of genius. To do critical justice to it would require a review many times longer than the work itself, because it operates within a sort of fractal universe where patterns are infinitely repeated. The plot itself is easily told: Max Glickman, the narrator, is born into the self-perpetuating shtetl of Crumpsall, son of former champion boxer Jack "The Jew" Glickman, who had no time for Judaism, "which he considered, somewhat illogically, to be a curse on the Jews".

Max and his childhood friend Manny (Emmanuel: Isaiah's name for the Messiah who would deliver Judah) collaborate on the embryonic history of the the Jews, Five Thousand Years of Bitterness. As adults, Max becomes a cartoonist and a collector of shikseh wives. Manny's brother Asher falls in love with the half-German daughter of a Gentile woman who comes round to do domestic tasks forbidden on the Sabbath, and has the service for the dead read over him in consequence.

And Manny? Manny kills his parents. As Max's mother breaks the news: "'In their beds, Max. They think gassed.' 'Gassed!' 'I know.' You don't say 'gassed' to Jews if you can help it." Years later, on Manny's release from prison, a TV company persuades Max to essay a programme with his old friend. Understanding is, in the end, achieved: a provisional, contingent understanding, but in life you take what you can. The bare scaffolding of the plot is no more than a collection of poles and planks: people working away, the occasional crash, cries of alarm, the laborious hammering of life. Behind the dust-sheets Jacobson is presiding, with absolute authority and control, over the construction of a masterpiece.

Impossible to enumerate all the stories he is telling: of love and fear, of God and masochism, of shtetl and camp, of sex and joy, contempt and loyalty; of the history of the Jews, which is the history of Christendom itself. Impossible to enumerate adequately the characters who people the book: Tsderaiter Ike the inexplicable cousin; Dodgy Ike and the other Ikes; Jack Glickman and his anti-Jewishness Jews; Max's mother, burnished and sweet-voiced, endlessly playing kalooki, Shani the sister with her endless, wrong shoes.

Kalooki Nights is not just a catchy title but an epitome: the game of kalooki, which Max's mother lives for, requires calculation and empathy, not just what you might do with your hand of cards, but what others might reveal by what they do with theirs. A gala kalooki night, too, is what Max has instead of a barmitzvah. He, too, never becomes what the word means, a "son of the Law", constructing a liminal life as a cartoonist satirising from the sidelines. And as in cards, so in life. Redemption is a fiction; there is only the playing-out of one hand and the dealing of the next.

Michael Bywater's 'Lost Worlds' is published by Granta