I just discovered my favorite author of the decade. ¬†Maybe of the past several decades.
Every once in a while‚Äďsay every five or ten years‚ÄďI read a short story that blows me away. I still remember mulling over O‚ÄôHenry‚Äôs ‚ÄúThe Gift of the Magi‚ÄĚ and Maupassant‚Äôs ‚ÄúThe Necklace‚ÄĚ (the MOST agonizing story ever written) as a fairly young kid, and Hemingway‚Äôs ‚ÄúThe Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber‚ÄĚ when I was a bit older, moving on and up through O‚ÄôConnor‚Äôs ‚ÄúEverything That Rises Must Converge,‚ÄĚ Shaw‚Äôs ‚ÄúThe Girls in Their Summer Dresses,‚ÄĚ and Olsen‚Äôs ‚ÄúTell Me a Riddle‚ÄĚ (which is arguably more novella than short story).
But nothing in recent years has blown me away like the two stories I just read, both by Nathan Englander.
‚ÄĚFree Fruit for Young Widows‚ÄĚ was my first exposure to him. ¬†I’d never even heard of Englander before, but I stumbled across this short story in The New Yorker. (You¬†can still read it online on their website.) ¬†I thought it was incredible, so I checked Englander’s short story collection For the Relief of Unbearable Urges out of the library.
The whole collection is worth reading but the first story, ‚ÄúThe Twenty-Seventh Man‚ÄĚ is simply one of the best things I‚Äôve ever read in my life. Period. It‚Äôs compassionate, harrowing, funny, poignant, horrifying . . . all in a few pages. And should be taught in every high school in this country. (An aside: there’s a character in it who has autism–at least I think he does; it’s not stated–and it was the most original, compassionate portrayal of autism I’ve seen since Mark Haddon’s¬†The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time.)
I’ve recommended these two Englander short stories to a bunch of people, ranging from Kim (who reads everything) to my father (who’s in his eighties) to my brother (who mostly reads scientific articles) and everyone has said it’s simply one of the best things he or she has ever read.
I don’t gush about a lot of modern writers, as anyone who reads these pages knows. ¬†I was an English major in college, reading Dickens, Austen, Bronte and the like. ¬†Most modern literature leaves me cold. ¬†I don’t find the stories exciting or the people engaging. ¬†It feels like the majority of short stories I read fall into the same pattern: a description of someone leading your basic life of quiet desperation, somewhat alienated from the people around him, with lots dialogue and details that sum up the meaninglessness of our daily pursuits, and a minor emotional epiphany at the end that leads to precisely nowhere.
But Englander tells a real story and he tells it like no one else. ¬†His stories aren’t “familiar” but they are page-turners. ¬†Frankly, I don’t need to recognize the boring, soul-sucking details of my own daily life in the stories I read: I’d much rather recognize something huge and painful about the way people torture and also love one another, about how compassion is the only healing force in the face of cruelty, about how parents can and should teach their children that, and about how we shouldn’t judge anyone until we know what his life has been.
Englander’s stories remind me of a beautiful and poignant quote from Olsen’s¬†Tell Me a Riddle:
“Heritage. ¬†How have we come from our savage past, how no longer to be savages–this to teach. ¬†To look back and learn what humanizes–this to teach. ¬†To smash all ghettos that divide us–not to go back, not to go back–this to teach.”
This is what Englander teaches. ¬†Only he does it in the best way possible: by writing a story you can’t put down.