This post originally appeared on I Read Everything
Book: Beware of God: Stories
Author: Shalom Auslander
Type of Book: Fiction, short stories
Why Did I Read This Book: I have heard Shalom Auslander on NPR programs and on PRI’s This American Life and found him deeply interesting so I looked up all his books and put them on my Amazon list. And eventually ordered one.
Availability: Published by Simon & Schuster in 2005, you can get a copy here:
Comments:I guess I’ve only ever heard Shalom Auslander speak about serious subjects, like the existential fear he at times experienced when he decided to distance himself from his Orthodox Jewish upbringing. I started reading this book knowing that he was a man steeped in Judaism, but I had no idea how flat out funny he is. He writes with a wry sense of humor, a startling awareness of the human condition and a sharp prose that somehow manages to be both a tiny bit jaded yet steeped in sentimentality. Not an easy feat, to be sure.
This collection has 14 short stories and there is not a clunker in the bunch, so I won’t even have to do the “Here are the ones I loved/Here are the ones that didn’t work” split that I do in so many of my reviews of short story collections. All the stories were worth reading so I get to discuss the the ones I considered the cream of the crop.
“The War of the Bernsteins” discussed a married couple wherein the husband’s excessive need for piety makes his wife nuts and combative. She begins to counter Mr. Bernstein’s every excessive attempt at righteousness but with a mind to her own soul.
The spiritual mathematics consumed her,
On the outside chance that there actually was a World to Come, she certainly didn’t want to sacrifice her own rewards in the next life just to ruin his. Mrs. Bernstein didn’t mind going to the Seventh Level of Hell, so long as she could walk to the edge, look down below and see Mr. Bernstein burning in the Eighth.
After engaging in mental calisthenics and spiritual algorithms, she begins her sin campaign.
She used nonkosher wine for Kiddush. She put milk in his coffee after serving him meat. She put pork in the chulent. She put bacon bits in his salad, and told him they were imitation.
She continues to wage war against him, forcing him into more and more acts of piety, until she finally, very sensibly and quietly, cracks. I am honestly unsure if I know why I love this story so much other than that I think I have known all too well this sort of warfare and rejoice that my own life contains none of it. I think it was simply that clenched-jaw, angry words cloaked under false sweetness, years of resentment disguised as edgy banter that we have all been forced to witness over a tense dinner was placed in a new setting. Sometimes a fresh look at old situations are all a story needs to be wonderful. Well, that and a clever hand, which Auslander has in spades.
“Bobo the Self-Hating Chimp” was also a winner. A bite at the self-hating Jew, of course, but not entirely. There is more at work here than the same old Woody Allen schtick.
At 9:37 in the otherwise ordinary morning of May 25, Bobo, a small male chimpanzee in the Monkey House of the Bronx Zoo, achieved total conscious self-awareness.
Each one dropped like a boulder onto his tiny primitive skull. He grabbed his head in his hands and ran shrieking around the Monkey House…
Bobo quickly learns that no one wants to deal with the psyche of a self-aware chimp, and that he also lacks the capacity to explain himself as his larynx did not evolve with his brain, and finds himself aping, as it were, the behaviors of chimps as he observes them. Their behavior sickens him and he finds himself filled with more self-loathing, and worse, regret.
One day, in a fit of pique, Bobo throws a pile of shit at another chimp, misses and nails the glass enclosure. He likes the results and begins to paint the glass walls with shit.
By the end of his first week of consciousness, Bobo had painted large Expressionist shit murals on every wall of the Monkey House. He began with simple studies: an apple, a monorail, cotton candy. By the end of the first week, he was creating sweeping tableaus which he saw as scathingly satirical attacks on chimpanzee culture and primate mores. His Self-Portrait was a devastating attack on racism, his Unhuman Stain a poignant plea for self-respect and dignity, his Life in the Monkey House a searing assault on political power and corporate gain.
The shit paintings fetch a hefty price on the art market but the zoo finds the expense of replacing the glass too dear so they provide Bobo with paints and canvas but the therapeutic benefits elude the self-aware chimp. A self-aware existence proves too much for Bobo, as it does for many artists who struggle with existential questions. Then another chimp finds himself becoming self-aware and the circle becomes complete.
“Look at us,” Kato thought. “A bunch of fucking monkeys.”
“Somebody Up There Likes You” tells the story of Bloom who escapes the death God had in mind for him because he was driving a Volvo, and he ends up contemplating the idea of whether or not there was indeed someone up there who liked him. The answer is a playful look at the relative omnipotence of godhead and an interaction between God and Lucifer reminiscent of the trials of Job, but rather than testing Bloom, the man becomes a thorn in the side of God and Lucifer.
“Holocaust Tips for Kids” shows how a school’s day-long program for Holocaust Remembrance Day affects deeply a grade-school boy who begins to plan for what he will do if the Nazis ever come back for him. He makes plans to hoard food for his inevitable years spent in an attic, but figures a treehouse would do okay as well as it seems unlikely a Nazi force would search all the treehouses in his neighborhood. As deeply disturbing as this story has the potential to be, the impact of Auslander’s humor prevents it from being a complete exercise in psychological horror. Bruce Lee, Ninjas, The Godfather, the positive attributes of Florida during a Nazi invasion and the necessity of being in good shape when the next Holocaust happens all are a part of the musings of this boy as he contemplates the worst that can happen. It seems horrible to find amusing the following line:
When they put you in a cattle car, try to get a spot near a window.
But how can you not see the humor and how can you not mourn both the loss of innocence that leads to such thoughts as well as celebrate the youthful mind willing to come up with such contingencies to survive. It is a gift to make the truly uncomfortable humorous.
“God Is a Big, Happy Chicken” was my favorite story in the collection. Yankel Morgenstern dies and goes to Heaven and discovers God really is a large chicken who largely does not care about the world of humans.
“Fuck,” said Morgenstern.
“You know,” said Chicken, “that’s the first thing everyone says when they meet me. ‘Fuck.’ How does that make me feel?”
The angel Gabriel tries to explain things to Morgenstern:
“But the Bible–” said Morgenstern.
“Don’t you worry about the Bible,” said Gabe. “We’ve got the joker who wrote that thing down in Hell. Gabe,” he said. extending his hand to Morgenstern as they walked through the Nothingness toward the Nowhere.
“As in Gabriel, right?” asked Morgenstern. “I expected you to be more, I don’t know–”
“I supposed,” answered Morgenstern.
“Asians all think I’d be Asian. Black folks all think I’d be black. It’s a funny world. I’m sort of the head ranch hand around here. I make sure Chicken has enough feed and water, I clean his coop. You know, general maintenance.”
“Couldn’t The Chicken just create his own food?”
“Not ‘The Chicken,’ just ‘Chicken.’ And no, he can’t create his own food. He’s a chicken.”
Morgenstern begs Gabe to let him return to Earth so he can warn his family, but once there, he is faced with a dilemma: better to be right or to live in ignorance and be happy. I feel I can tell you the quandry Morgenstern finds himself in with little angst about spoiling the plot because as much hand-wringing as goes on in these stories, the end is in no way inevitable.
I was surprised at how delightful these stories were. In fact, when I first opened the book I was expecting a memoir collection, snippets from Auslander’s life. That comes with the territory when you order books simply because they grab you in some way, eschewing the toilet of Amazon reviews (the occasional leaving may float to the top but at the end of the day, it’s still a turd), just amassing reading material on a whim. But sometimes that method leaves you with little, unexpected gifts. This book was indeed an unexpected gift and I highly recommend it.