For the Relief of Unbearable Urges
by Nathan Englander
Published by Alfred A. Knopf
1999, 205 pages
Buy it online
Reviewed by Linda L. Richards
There are very few hard rules for the short story. A complete story can cover the breadth of the thought of a few moments or grind us through the years that are followed in an epic novel. The narrative can be light and not require great gobs of emotional commitment, or heavy enough to provoke significant contemplation from anyone who reads it. Whatever the case, the challenge is to create a complete thought: a complete story with compelling characters that you care about at least as long as the story continues. A lot of people write short stories, but few of them do it well enough to create a readership.
Nathan Englander will be one of the few. In For the Relief of Unbearable Urges the 28-year-old writer has created nine little worlds in as many tales, so complete that the images he brings and the characters he gives us will stay with many readers long after the last page is turned. Englander grew up in New York and now lives in Jerusalem, and along the way he seems to have given a great deal of thought to the emotions we all share and how they move people.
In "The Wig" we come across an Orthodox Brooklyn wig maker, Ruchama and her friend and assistant Tzippy, musing about a shipment of real hair that they've gotten:
Tzippy begins unraveling the braid, brushing through the hair with her fingers and burying her face in it. She is smelling for a past, sniffing out the woman's shampoo and sweat, the staleness of cigarettes or the smoke that drifts down from some factory nearby. She breathes deep. She is onto a scent, a wind from a village, a mist of perfume.
"They are paid top dollar," Ruchama tells her.
"Women with choices leave their hair to be swept off salon floors," Tzippy says.
"Maybe these women are more prudent."
"With such hair?" Tzippy waves the braid's open end at Ruchama. "These are women who have to sell some part of themselves and this is where they begin. This one," she says, sniffing again, "is on break at a bottling plant thinking of her lover. She sold her hair to pay his gambling debts and she wonders now where her hair is and where the bum has gone."
"My own life is depressing enough, Tzippy. Why must you make it like we're scalping orphans?"
With apparent ease -- and a masterful way with dialog -- Englander creates a convincing sense of time and space and sets us up for the hair-related tale to follow. Though, of course, it isn't about hair at all, but a woman dealing with her own aging and with a few unbearable urges of her own.
The theme of the book, if there must be one, is Jewish history and the customs of Orthodox life. This train is the single common thread that runs through the stories. If, however, that description leaves a dry taste in your mouth, discard it: Englander's virtuosity will give this book a wider audience. His images are stark and beautiful, his characters real and believable and his prose entirely elegant and completely delightful.
Beyond anything else, For the Relief of Unbearable Urges is a book for people who love the written word and who enjoy discovering a new writer of immense talent. A young writer, Nathan Englander seems to have all of the weight of the New York publishing machine -- as well as his own very real voice and talent -- behind him. I suspect that the best is yet to come. | April 1999
Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine. Her fourth novel, Death was the Other Woman, will be published early in 2008 by St. Martin's Minotaur.