A Drop in Distinction

By Susan Comninos

Published March 25, 2005, issue of March 25, 2005.

‘How to Fall,” the third collection of tales by Edith Pearlman, winner of Sarabande Books’s Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction, reads like the literary equivalent of a Broadway salute to established writers, ranging from American stars Cynthia Ozick and Nathan Englander to Israel’s lesser-known, but superb, Yehudit Hendel.

To date, small presses have been the exclusive publishers of Pearlman’s books. Nevertheless, her fine tales, such as “Allog” and “Chance” (both from her second effort, “Love Among the Greats”), have been admired for their originality and anthologized in “The Best American Short Stories,” among others. Similarly, “How to Fall,” includes two tales — “Mates” and “The Story” — already reprinted in the Pushcart and O. Henry prize series. Given Pearlman’s record of penning distinctive work, her new release should not resemble a cabaret set of cover songs. But it does.

Rather than being a signature collection, Pearlman’s “How to Fall” kicks up a chorus line of legs and repeatedly tips hats to other Jewish short-story writers, given its debts to their work. To wit: Its recurrent heroine, Sonya Sofrankovitch, a detached American aid worker capable of preserving her emotional flatline even in Hitler’s Europe, recalls Ozick’s famed heroine Puttermesser, a postmodern isolate whose bloated IQ hampers her every social effort.

Similarly, Pearlman’s title tale, in which a grief-stricken TV comic executes a fall for a soulless 1950s audience, seems a pale recapitulation of Englander’s Holocaust tale, “The Tumblers” (1998), in which a corps of starving Hasidim masquerade as a troupe of incompetent acrobats. And “The Message,” about a stolid American wife’s affair on a trip to Jerusalem, resembles Hendel’s “Fata Morgana Across the Street” (1997), about a provincial’s affair with a Tel Aviv man. In each story, an incidental gift symbolizes the respective emotional investments of a philanderer and a naif.

Fans of Ozick, Englander and Hendel might appreciate that “How to Fall” seems to adapt their favorite authors’ greatest hits. But with this collection, Pearlman is unlikely to wow her audience or to land that breakout role: trailblazing author with a mainstream book contract.

Susan Comninos writes for The Atlantic Online, the San Francisco Chronicle and Nerve.com, among others.

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How to Fall

By Edith Pearlman

Sarabande Books, 225 pages, $14.95.



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