Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The Book of Life

By Stuart Nadler
New York, Back Bay Books, 2011
182 pages    Short Stories

Big title—intimate stories. Stuart Nadler has assembled seven of his stories about modern Jewish life in The Book of Life. Actually these are seven stories primarily about modern Jewish men. One review of the book that I particularly enjoyed was by a Milwaukee bookseller. He says that Nadler’s men (boys as he calls them) are haunted by five things: family, faith, career, libido and hairline. All of these are stories of men at life’s crossroads, facing difficult decisions or suffering from the consequences of decisions made. All are filled with angst. The reader is able to identify with the stories because the situations are universal and the emotions raw.

My favorite story, and one of the most poignant, is The Moon Landing, in which two brothers clean out their parent’s home following their deaths. Both parents had been heavy drinkers, which is how the narrator remembers his childhood. He speaks of the liquor cabinet as “the center of this house, our own Ark of the Covenant.” 

The brothers are not friends; the narrator a screenwriter and recovering alcoholic living in California and the other brother, a lawyer in Boston. The narrator had not been home in 25 years; the younger brother was the good son, who visited his parents on weekends. Both are full of regret as they attempt to dismantle the house and their parent’s lives while maintaining their distance and their resolve …”the evidence of a childhood spent perfecting the art of psychological camouflage…the sort of survival skills we learned in this house.”

The memories of their parents overwhelm them as they work, both the good memories and the bad. The two men have grown so far apart that all they have in common are their parents and their childhood, and as they empty the house, they fight against the painful trigger responses that guided them into their adulthood. It is a touching story, and it is a story that we know—certainly those of us who have cleaned out a parent’s house with our siblings. I continue to be amazed at how childhood experiences and parental misguidance haunt us well into adulthood.

I connected with this story in a very visceral way because of things that were happening in my own family. A relative had just finished a court hearing in which she had her mother committed to a treatment center for drugs and alcohol. At the same time, she was cleaning out her mother’s house. She recounted to me the painful ways in which she tried to keep her equilibrium while she dealt with everything that was swirling around her. The Moon Landing by Stuart Nadler helped me understand her reality a little better. 

Stuart Nadler is a graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, and this is his first book. He says of these stories that “they all reflect what had become by then (for him) serious preoccupations with religious identity, cultural assimilation, morality and sin and of course the enduring difficulties between fathers and sons.” 

There has been early praise for his work. The review in Shelf Awareness says, “A dazzling debut short story collection replete with characters wrestling with guilt and regret but fighting for lives with humor, spirit and the odd transgression.” Kirkus Reviews calls him “a writer’s writer.” I received this book in an ebook form from the publicist.

If you enjoy short stories, you might also appreciate American Salvage written by Kalamazoo author Bonnie Jo Campbell. It was short-listed for the National Book Award, and I read it and blogged about it last year.
Stuart Nadler’s website:

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