Upper West Side Adolescence

A Collection of Stories That Evokes the Desperate Urge To Understand Otherness

By Saul Austerlitz

Published December 12, 2003, issue of December 12, 2003.
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The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button, Apt. 3W

By Gabriel Brownstein

W.W. Norton, 224 pages, $13.95.

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Contemporary American Judaism of the culturally oriented, lox-and-bagels-on-Sundays variety has always maintained a conflicted relationship with traditionally minded Orthodoxy: Orthodox practice is stigmatized, viewed as a mindless celebration of past tradition that wholly ignores contemporary mores, though there remains for many a half-submerged, guilty sensation that Orthodoxy, at least in its Eastern European, shtetl-fabulous version, is more “real” than the suburbanized, politically correct 2003 model. This fear and fascination of non-observant Jews toward traditional Orthodoxy is at the center of the two best stories in Gabriel Brownstein’s debut collection, the Hemingway/PEN Award-winning “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Apt. 3W.”

But first, the dross. Brownstein’s less-than-illuminating idea of updating famous short stories (Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony,” Hawthorne’s “Wakefield”) is, for the most part, a bust. The resulting efforts consistently sway too much to one side or the other; either they are so faithful to their literary predecessors that their contemporary settings feel false, or the originals are wrenched so far from their contexts that the necessity of using an older, more famous work as their basis is unclear. Regardless, Brownstein’s purposeful indebtedness to past literary greats only enforces the sneaking suspicion that, alas, he is not to join their ranks.

It is in the remainder of the collection that Brownstein’s natural storytelling skills emerge more clearly. Most of the book’s stories are narrated by Davey Birnbaum, through whose adolescent eyes we see the world in miniature of one apartment building on West 89th Street in Manhattan. Borrowing from the conceit of Georges Perec’s “Life — A User’s Manual,” Brownstein attempts a similar documentation of the drama lurking behind one building’s every peephole. He ably depicts the desperate urge to comprehension that marks adolescence, and in Davey and his cohorts, he illuminates the innate desire to understand the lives of others.

A similar fascination with otherness lurks behind the two aforementioned stories of encounters with Orthodoxy. Religious devotion, in these stories, bubbles up from the subconscious as a long-suppressed urge, a primal desire capable of overthrowing all that lies in its way. Nonetheless, the eruption of Orthodoxy in “Bachelor Party” and “The Dead Fiddler, 5E” (a tip of the hat to Isaac Bashevis Singer) marks those it affects permanently, their religious fervor a particularly savage return of the repressed. As the narrator of “Bachelor Party” puts it, “But you know how it is in the suburbs. We tiptoe around holiness the way our ancestors did around sex. We have special places for it, we avoid them.”

In “Bachelor Party,” Jake, a champion skirt-chaser turned spiritual man, holds court at a bachelor party the night before his wedding. Prodded by his party-hearty best man, Larry, Jake is encouraged to shed his Orthodox inhibitions and regale the group with the story of his greatest sexual experience. Jake’s intense, disturbing story renders his audience shocked and breathless, and unnerves the narrator, his sexually inexperienced brother Ken. Ken’s outburst at the close of his brother’s story — which leaves him with a black eye, courtesy of Ken — reveals his intense discomfort with Jake’s persistent need for the upper hand. To Ken, Jake’s casually adopted Orthodox practice is just like the offhand descriptions of wondrous sexual experiences — a form of assumed superiority. Ken lashes out at what terrifies him, and at what makes his own life seem paltry and ineffectual.

The book’s closing story possesses a matching sensibility. Seymour Lenzner, a Cornell-trained psychiatrist and Vladimir Nabokov-loving intellectual, has discovered God, and consequently become unable to adequately fulfill his patients’ needs. His wife, Anna, helps him muddle along for a time, but Seymour grows so attached to his life of Torah that he decides to flee psychiatry, selling his practice and dedicating his life to the study of the Talmud. Anna, horrified at the loss of her great love and intellectual compatriot, is offered a divorce from this now stranger, on one condition — that she agree to their daughter Jessica’s leaving the liberal-artsy confines of Horace Mann, giving up on her collegiate ambitions and marrying a yeshiva bucher from Williamsburg named Shmelke Motl.

In Brownstein’s equation, Judaism is either safely harmless, buffeted by secular humanism on all sides, or a fire-breathing dragon of destruction, hell-bent on destroying all that lies between it and its goal of ironclad domination. The book’s depiction of contemporary Jewish life is fascinating, more as an X-ray of secular Jewish fears about the potential encroachment of Orthodoxy than as a realistic depiction of modern-day religious practice. Yale or Williamsburg: That is the choice in these stories, and middle ground is nonexistent.

Saul Austerlitz is a freelance writer living in New York.

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