Sunday, April 22, 2007

Review—Kalooki Nights

Haunting history, with a dose of humor

So much of the writing on the Holocaust is dark and dreary, arguably rightly so. After all, how does one locate humor in a moment of history unparalleled in its brutality? Yet, every once in a while, a book comes along that forces us to relook at the tragedy, and not necessarily with misty eyes. Howard Jacobson's Kalooki Nights in one such book, celebratory of its Jewishness, lush in its humor and very-very intelligently composed.

At its heart is the story of Max Glickman, a cynical cartoonist who composes a self-proclaimed masterpiece, Five Thousand Years of Bitterness. Passing through a spate of failed marriages with women "who have diaereses or umlauts in their names," such as Chloë, Zoë and Alÿs, Max is the archetypal Jewish outcast, aching to break free from his Jewish heritage even as the ties of culture and ancestry bind him.

Raised in a secular atheist family, with a boxing enthusiast for a father and a kalooki player for a mother, Max's childhood is centered around his two friends—the outgoing, vibrant Errol Tobias and the quiet, brooding Manny Washinsky. Errol and Manny are two opposing poles of Jewishness. While one is into randy quips and onanist fantasies, the other is the product of a strict upbringing that has sapped the life out of him. What ties the book together is an incident from the past: Manny gassed his own parents in the '70s, in a brutal reprisal of the Nazi methods against the Jews during the Holocaust. Max is asked by two television producers to examine the case in writing, and the second half of the book tracks Max's attempts to make sense of the grisly crime his friend committed many years ago. Why did he do it? How did an ordinary-looking boy plumb depths of such depravity? Did his orthodox upbringing incite hatred for his parents?

No, none of these seemingly apparent answers fit. The subject matter, though dark, makes up for an oddly light tale in Jacobson's able hands. But let not his humor be confused for apathy. Jacobson, via Max and Manny, conveys the ineluctable truth of young Jews everywhere: how not to be special; how to look at the world without the past beating down their back. In creating extraordinary circumstances for quite ordinary characters, Jacobson has effectively questioned the force of history. He does not look at history from the perspective of those who were part of it; rather he beseeches the reader to consider the fate of those who continue to be haunted by its unedifying distance. In spite of its humor, or perhaps because of it, Kalooki Nights is one of our best contemporary novels on what constitutes Jewishness.

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This review appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Here is the original link.

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