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A lost world

The Nimrod Flipout Stories By Etgar Keret Translated from the Hebrew by Miriam Shlesinger and Sondra Silverston Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 168 pp., $12 paper

April 16, 2006|Richard Eder | Richard Eder, former book critic for The Times, was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for criticism in 1987.

ISRAEL was founded in a militant idealism that required the reality of an enemy to impel its heroism. Nazi Germany clearly provided that reality; Palestinian resistance, though, raised more difficult questions. An older generation of Israeli writers -- A.B. Yehoshua and Amos Oz, for instance -- tried, with a moral heroism of their own, to deal with such a change. "Are we the enemy as well?" they asked.

Such heroics are rarely heritable. For their literary offspring, more engaged with the ennui of the young than with any external threat, the meaning has shifted. "Enemy" is pronounced "anomie."

Here, for instance, is Etgar Keret, vastly successful among younger Israelis and viewed with suspicion by some older ones. If the mark of a disturbing writer is that he introduces a new world, it's also that he overturns a previous one. And Keret's displacements are not confrontations but worse: a distracting failure to show up. The stories in "The Nimrod Flipout," his first collection to be published in the United States, come in tiny puffs, as if any deep defining breaths would be inappropriate to a time when air and water are at risk -- and definitions of ourselves are too, most of all. How to define a cat if the uncertainty principle tosses up the notion that it may be in two states at once?

Keret writes in several states at once. There is a suggestion of Haruki Murakami's matter-of-fact disjunctions and the calmly droll absurdities of Donald Barthelme. There is a touch of the supernatural and more than a touch of the wry and sententious Jewish folk tale. Call it magical shtickism. In several stories, the best ones, there is something more.

The tone is a confidential, spoken raffishness, as if someone were telling a buddy about these two dogs, see, who go into a Tel Aviv bar

Take "Fatso," for instance, in which a young man's lovely girlfriend turns each night into a man, vulgar and hairy, and takes him to bars, where he dances on the tables and reeks of steak and onions. The young man endures it, he says, for her sake. Yet the reader senses a darker suggestion: Perhaps it's for Fatso's sake -- which is how the narrator refers to her gross nature -- that he endures his graceful girlfriend.

Some stories are slight vignettes, using a skewed notion and a chipper voice as bait for a semi-saccharine message. These result in fancies ranging from decent to ingenious -- though the construction can show through. A tale of adultery among identical twins zips like a windup toy to its point: that adultery and twinship both serve to enlarge life.

Others, like "Fatso," possess an undertone or overtone, an extra resonance, a scorpion-like stinger in the tail. A son grows smarter, taller, more successful as his parents shrink; he carries them around in his pocket. They don't mind; they live for him, and when he finds a girl to kiss, the pocket vibrates with his father's "Way to go, son" and his mother's joyful sobbing.

The narrator of "Halibut," depressed by the money-grubbing culture he says has replaced Israel's idealistic passions, makes a scene in a restaurant because the so-called talking fish on the menu doesn't talk. Suddenly it does. "Take off," the fish counsels. "Grab a cab to the airport and hop on the first plane out." He can't, the narrator replies, because he has a business. "Never mind, forget it," the fish mutters. "I'm depressed."

Indeed, Keret's wacky inventions, his subversive wit, never quite free themselves (as they do in Murakami and Barthelme) from depression over the emptiness they so jauntily flourish. If heroism is gone, there's still a lament over what has become of the country built by its fathers.

In "Himme," written with a large and delicate architecture, a father takes a son whose anomie has sapped his will to live (suicide comes up in several stories in this collection) on a magical mystery tour. The destination is India, a trendy tourist spot for young Israelis. Keret stitches a fine seam of melancholy through his generation's fads.

The father belongs to an Old Guard of septuagenarian friends, now dying out, who lived in a time of vital extremes. Israel's extremes were idealistic and often crass, fearsome and often comic. For their children, all that remains is the comedy.

When the father dies suddenly, a fraudulent holy man turns up to dun the son of cigarettes and money. Then comes the Buddha offering a basket of withered dandelions. The son blows on them and the world disappears. It is not irony, let alone a mystical experience; it is simply a loquacious void. For Keret's young Israelis, the world has vanished along with the blown dust of a generation that seemed more real than they are. *

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