"KALOOKI Nights," British author Howard Jacobson's frustrating, outrageous, humorous and harrowing ninth novel, is the story of cartoonist Max Glickman, who has made a semblance of a career satirizing his 1950s childhood in the Manchester suburb of Crumpsall Park. Raised in a Jewish community, Max is the product of a non-observant upbringing. His father, a boxer whose quick-to-bleed nasal membranes have sent him into early retirement, is a staunch believer in assimilation and refuses to give Max a bar mitzvah. "You become a man when you've performed a manly action," he says, and proceeds to spar with his son in the backyard.
Max's gorgeous mother accedes to her husband's attempts to make Jewishness less of a burden and spends her nights playing kalooki, a card game that has become her religion. Also in the household are Max's sister Shani, who simultaneously loves and rages at her abundant wardrobe, and Tsedraiter Ike, their uncle, a traditional Jew who offers Shani's suitor -- an Irishman "who knew a kreplach from a k'nish" -- 5,000 pounds to "skedaddle."
The young Max hangs around with the strange, asexual Manny Washinsky, whose life in an Orthodox household is inexorably changed when his brother falls in love with a half-German gentile. Eventually, Max finds out that Manny has killed his parents by gassing them in their home. Circling (and circling and circling) this episode, Max swoops in and out of Manny's story while intermittently telling his own, and more -- the story of the Jews.
"Jew Jew, Jew Jew, Jew Jew," Jacobson writes on too many pages to document. In "Kalooki Nights" there are: Jews who grew up a hair's width from the Holocaust and who knew what it was long before it was named; Jews who hate the deniers and who deny the deniers; Jews who embrace the faith and Jews who disdain it; Jews who survived, who perished, who changed their names; Jews who love stilettos and Jews shod only in sandals; Jews who stray and Jews who return. All of these are Jews who spend most of their time discussing what it means and does not mean to be an English Jew. Max holds them in his memories and works them all into his cartoons.
Max reconnects with Manny Washinsky (now named Stroganoff) several years after Manny has been released from prison. By this time, Max has already written his comic tour de force, "Five Thousand Years of Bitterness," which garnered only slightly more commercial success than his follow-up, "No Bloody Wonder." He's also been through three marriages -- the first two to "shiksehs," the last to a Jew, each interchangeable wife's name topped by an umlaut. As he tries to understand how a pious Jew like Manny could have committed such a crime, Max explores more Jewish themes, stereotypes, gaffes and turns of speech than it seems possible to fit in any one novel.
While Jacobson's timing is superbly comic (he was awarded the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize for Comic Writing in 2000), these themes are heavy ones: collective memory, fathers and sons, ethnicity, revisionism, victimhood. Of the last, Max's father says, "We're Jews because Jewishness is what's been done to us." Jacobson bats out these precise, funny and supremely loaded dictums one after the other -- although you sometimes wish he'd found a firmer structure for them than the often disembodied voice of Max Glickman.
Here, a plot and real, fleshed-out characters would have been of great assistance. "Plot -- All anyone was interested in ... !" Max thinks, during an argument with the documentary producer who urges him to tell Manny's story. Well? It might not be all that Jacobson's devoted followers are interested in, but occasionally grounding them in space and time might help them to absorb some of his complex ideas, as well as providing an incentive to turn all 450 pages. The baggy structure of "Kalooki Nights" may well infuriate even the most sympathetic reader, who will also want to see some of these characters in fuller bloom. For instance, Max fights with his gentile wives, Chloe and Zoe, only about his Jewishness. Each argument serves to prove his unending point -- that everyone's against the Jews -- but surely married people have many things to get divorced over.
"Kalooki Nights" is carried by Max's singular voice, which brings out all the physical and psychic costs of the diaspora and the Holocaust. Not only does Jacobson know from Jewish, but he also writes hilarious and unpredictable sentences, describing a letter from Max's uncle as written "in letters only a spider which had fallen in an inkwell could have formed." Trying to convince his mother of his "seriousness" as a Jew, Max says: "I'm what a Jew is supposed to be. I don't forgive. I separate things. I argue with the Almighty. He likes that."
But what made Manny Washinsky gas his parents? Do Jewish Englishmen really wear only khakis with pleats? What \o7does\f7 it mean to be an English Jew? Is anyone here telling the truth? "Kalooki Nights" begs many questions; the reader will have to be satisfied with never learning the answers.
Jennifer Gilmore is the author of the novel "Golden Country."