A Short Journey by Car

by Liam Durcan
ISBN: 1550651897

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A Review of: Beware of God
by Michael Greenstein

A picture of a growling dog accompanies the title of Shalom Auslander's debut collection of short stories, Beware of God, reminding us of the reversal between "god" and "dog", an inversion that presents itself in the opening story, "The War of the Bernsteins". The quarrel between Mr. and Mrs. Bernstein places them on opposite sides of the same mattress-he trying to become an increasingly observant Jew, she subverting all of his beliefs. With elements from Malamud and Isaac Bashevis Singer, the story exhibits a perfect symmetry: it begins with a list of items Bernstein keeps under his bed in case the Messiah should come, and ends with his wife's list. He readies religious paraphernalia "and a bathing suit because you never know"; she prepares a secular wardrobe "and a bathing suit. Because you never know." In Auslander's clashing fiction, you never know whether religion or secularism will gain the upper hand.
A similar symmetry recurs in "Bobo the Self-Hating Chimp", an anthropomorphic story about self-awareness in the Bronx Zoo. God, death, shame, and guilt are suddenly revealed to Bobo until these human and divine attributes force him to commit suicide. When a younger chimpanzee has a similar epiphany, he feels shame for the animal behaviour of his tribe. Auslander's allegory provides a commentary on the human race and Darwinian evolution. Blasphemous anthropomorphism in "Somebody Up There Likes You" takes the form of God as mafia godfather trying to kill Bloom. The story begins with Bloom escaping a car accident and ends with God lamenting his death. "God closed his [sic] eyes and massaged His temples, trying to stave off the migraine He knew was coming. He was getting tired of this. Tired of the whole damn business." If Joyce's God pares His fingernails, Auslander's pulls the trigger.
In "The Metamorphosis" Auslander borrows from Kafka. "As Motty awoke one morning from impure dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a very large goy." Where Gregor Samsa turns into an insect, Motty Aranson changes to Superman, feared at synagogue and yeshiva, debated over by rabbinic authority until he is forced to hang himself. >From heaven Motty looks down on his own funeral and has the last laugh. In Auslander's tragic-comic tales, animals, humans, angels, and God ascend and descend the great ladder of being, accompanied by Talmudic argumentation. Familiar with the terrain of Orthodox Judaism, the author places himself just outside the fold, an apt position for commenting on religious foibles in these wry fables of identity. Aware of God, he puts Him in His place.
"Heimish Knows All" offers another tale of the sacred and profane. Omniscient Heimish is an observant dog (again God in reverse) that watches his ten-year-old keeper Shlomo, as the latter discovers the joys of masturbation. As the boy's watchful superego, the dog admonishes the adolescent's id defiling itself at home and at the synagogue. Eventually Heimish is run over by a car, and he watches from heaven as Shlomo continues to abuse himself excessively in a world of gefilte fish and Chanel perfume rubbing shoulders.
A pair of personified hamsters prays for the return of their keeper to feed them in the Beckett-like "Waiting for Joe". The story begins with a chiasmus or crossing over, indicative of the conversions between faith and doubt, guilt and lust, that pervade Auslander's fictional world: "In the beginning he was always on time. But it had been a long time since the beginning." "Holocaust Tips for Kids" also explores the relationship between innocence and guilt in America. Beware of God revels in an inverted universe, as the deus ex machina appears in various forms; throughout, Auslander dramatizes characters and events in sharp, witty sketches. Beware of Auslander, whose characters stay with you long after they die. It's a pleasure to read his uncanny fiction that rewrites Kafka, Roth, Malamud, and Singer.

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