A Flutter of Nabokov, a Scurry of Kafka

In a New Collection of Short Stories, Melvin Jules Bukiet Channels the Masters

By Mark Shechner

Published October 31, 2003, issue of October 31, 2003.
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A Faker’s Dozen: Stories

By Melvin Jules Bukiet

W.W. Norton & Company, 268 pages, $23.95.

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If a baker’s dozen is 13, then what is a faker’s dozen? Try 11, because that is the number of stories Melvin Jules Bukiet gives us in his new collection of stories, “A Faker’s Dozen.” You can complain, if you like, that Bukiet, like a light-fingered merchant, has shorted you a story, but you can’t say that he didn’t warn you.

I don’t know the precise word for what Bukiet is doing here. These stories, modeled playfully on the writing of a few modernist masters, aren’t exactly parodies or sendups, since the intention is more reverential than satirical. Nor are they exactly homages, though there is ever so much homage in them. I prefer to think of them as covers, in the way that musicians “cover” the performances of their predecessors. By covering the standards, you pay tribute, but you also enter into competition, and I like to think of Bukiet in these stories covering the greats, improvising his tributes and then blowing his own horn.

Who are they? One finds a flutter of Nabokov here, a scurry of Kafka there, a hint of Borges, a whiff of Calvino, a tincture of Malamud and homeopathic doses perhaps of Philip Roth and the Marx Brothers. Bukiet even covers Bukiet in one story. It is hard in particular not to spot Nabokov’s shadow here, with a book whose title recalls “Nabokov’s Dozen” and an opening story, “Squeak Memory,” in which a character not unlike Bukiet himself stalks the author of “Lolita” through the streets of midtown Manhattan and makes off with the master’s shoes.

That opening story sets the mood of the book. It finds a young narrator, during the Watergate hearings in 1973, spying Nabokov on a Manhattan street and deciding to tail him. “‘Hey,’ I said to myself, ‘this is a creepy thing to do. This is what G. Gordon Liddy did.’” Our storyteller here is a budding connoisseur of the creepy. He has been reading the Russian classics — Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Chekhov, Biely and Nabokov — and has become a kind of underground man of Manhattan, wandering the city in battered footwear, “a pair of Converse All-Stars that had seen better days.”

Following the great novelist to a shoe store, where he espies Nabokov picking out a pair of oxblood cordovans, he then tails him to the very corridor of his hotel, keeping a discreet distance. Why Nabokov should leave his new shoes outside the door, where some literary stalker might well trade them for a pair of wet sneakers, is never clear, but what happens is that the narrator walks off with snappy new cordovans, leaving the master a pair of soaking All-Stars to squish around in. The spirit of Watergate dirty tricks, it seems, has inspired a young writer to become his own G. Gordon Liddy. Homage and larceny come together in one inspired moment, as a man in sneakers turns out to be, after all, a sneak.

There is homage and furtiveness aplenty in these stories, and the fusion of the two is material for Bukiet’s freewheeling comedy. In “The Return of Eros to Academe,” a philosophy professor named Herman Stone — yes, old Philosopher Stone — finds himself infatuated with a trophy-hunting undergrad who seems to be working him for a grade. He enters class one morning, announcing “Kant today,” to which a student replies, “Sure you can, Prof.” Doing a poor job of hiding an affair with a student, Professor Stone throws up his hands, announcing, “Trish, this is absurd.” “Oh, stop joking,” she replies, “everyone on campus knows you don’t do twentieth century.” Wit like that deserves an A.

Turning the spotlight onto someone like himself, Bukiet gives us in “Paper Hero” a novelist named Randall who is desperate to call attention to his novel “Strange Fire,” the title of Bukiet’s own last novel. So he arranges to have himself shot at the Frankfurt Book Fair by an “Islamic terrorist,” targeting Randall for writing a book that “desecrates our Lord,” i.e. Allah. Randall is aspiring to be Salman Rushdie Redux and then some. The book took him two years to write, Randall grumbles, and now he “sits alone at bar in hotel lobby with thousands of other authors trying to separate their books from the other literary seaweed in the Sargasso.” Assassination threats confer instant celebrity on unknown writers, and no author who has ever found himself terminally mid-list or out of print is unfamiliar with this desperation, or with wishing for the providential fatwa that will lift him out of obscurity and into tabloid heaven.

Bukiet gives us the mock-epic “The Suburbiad,” a high school tall tale featuring warriors like Larry Resnick, son of “the masters of Western Foundations, bra makers to the trade, gross sales in the eight figures,” and maidens like his beloved and elusive Rolaine Rosen, “heiress to the Rosen Faucet Fortune,” and the lumbering Estelle Oblomowitz, “Estelle of ungainly tread,” whose face has “lunched a thousand chips.” Cruel, but sidesplittingly funny.

Bukiet reaches for something more perverse in “Philofilia,” a “Lolita” in reverse in which it is the mother who poaches on her 11-year-old son. In “Tongue of the Jews,” he reaches even further into the dark with a story about the gentile biographer of a Jewish Holocaust survivor who decides to convert to Judaism in order, it seems, to violate the kosher laws, after his survivor-subject has violated a commandment or two by seducing his wife. Still sore from his circumcision, he stops in a coffee shop for a ham and cheese on rye. And in “The Two Franzes,” which strikes me as the book’s most fully realized story, a 12-year-old Franz Kafka plays an unlikely Cupid to the sentimental dramatist Franz Grillparzer, carrying messages from the dramatist to his lover, a high-born woman who lives in, yes, a castle.

It may appear as though in “A Faker’s Dozen” Bukiet is taking a holiday from his nightmares: the Holocaust — explored in his novel “After” (1996) and the anthology “Nothing Makes You Free” (2002) — and Israeli politics, which provided the stage for “Strange Fire” (2001). But it may also be that he is tunneling into the subduction zone of his terrors from a different angle. Unlike Professor Stone, Bukiet does do 20th century. He may just be playing when, in “The Two Franzes,” Kafka’s sister calls him “you little insect” or the young Franz tells the heart-sore Grillparzer, “It sort of sounds like you’re accused of a crime, but you don’t even know what the crime is.” But when in the story “The War Lovers,” a crime and war photographer who makes his living from death finds himself being hunted down at an Easter parade by a giant mechanical Easter bunny, you don’t know whether to laugh or flee. Bukiet, our contemporary master of bad dreams, reminds us that the grotesque is another word for reality and that in this life a Jewish man must always keep a watchful eye on the Easter bunny.

So let’s call what Bukiet does here his communion with the modernist masters, the writers who have given him his chops: his Humbertian eyesight, his hunger artistry, his underground Schadenfreude, his inventive freedom and his nervous, fugitive laughter. He has learned well from his apprenticeship: If the shoe fits, steal it.

Mark Shechner’s most recent book is “Up Society’s Ass, Copper! Rereading Philip Roth,” published this year by University of Wisconsin Press. He is currently preparing for publication the late Mark Krupnick’s book of essays, “Jewish Writing and the Deep Places of the Imagination.”

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