Books coverage is supported by a generous grant from The Milton and Sophie Meyer Fund.
While the short story is a classic literary form, it can also feel like a somewhat beleaguered one. A perusal of the bestseller list rarely turns up a collection of short fiction. And although it makes perfect sense that readers tend to prefer a sustained plot and more room for character development, what we miss in neglecting short stories is tremendous.
Following four successful novels, Nicole Krauss’ first story collection, “To Be a Man,” comes as a welcome surprise. Krauss is a profoundly skilled writer, and her way with words made even the stories that did not quite work for me worth the voyage.
The stories in “To Be a Man” largely explore what happens within characters when their relationships are tested by time or altered circumstances. And for Krauss, such changes are inevitable. As the book’s first page announces, “We were European Jews, even in America, which is to say that catastrophic things had happened, and might happen again.”
If there are indeed catastrophes transpiring throughout the book — Krauss’ settings include a city in which gas masks are being distributed, a city threatened by wildfire, and a refugee camp — such phenomena are always secondary to the tremors occurring in people’s inner lives, as characters come to develop different understandings of, and feelings about, the people who are central to them.
One of the more memorable stories is “I Am Asleep but My Heart Is Awake,” in which a woman whose father has recently died travels to Israel and stays in the apartment that, unbeknownst to her, her father had kept in his native country.
Poignantly, she comes to feel that perhaps “this was his real home, and the apartment I’d grown up in was merely the place he stayed when away from here.” After she has been there for a week, a mysterious stranger lets himself into the apartment and settles himself, informing her nonchalantly that he is allowed to stay there as needed. As the two coexist for days, her astonishment at the man’s chutzpah gives way to more complex feelings.
In “The Husband,” an old man shows up unannounced at a Tel Aviv widow’s door, accompanied by a social service worker who claims that the man is the widow’s first and long-lost husband, recently arrived from Hungary. Although this scenario cannot be true, the widow does not object to having the old man in her life. Her adult daughter in New York, however, is outraged by the situation, with her own unresolved emotions eclipsing her ability to grasp that her mother may have become a bit happier.
As the title implies, a number of the stories explore the nature of manhood. But, compellingly, they do so through the narrative voice of women. In the title story, a recounting of episodes from the narrator’s past relationships with men — men whose behavioral repertoire ranges from tenderness to violence — is followed by a brief and affecting meditation on the liminal moment of being a mother to boys who are on the verge of reaching maturity.
The narrator, who knows “in what direction the hair on their heads grows, and the way they smell at night and in the morning, and all the many faces they went through before the ones they each wear now,” must acknowledge that “the boys they are now will disappear, buried inside the men they will become.” And the inevitable loss that this transformation represents is compounded by the foreign and complicated nature of masculinity.
“One of Us” is Scott Nadelson’s fifth collection of short stories. Like Krauss, he is more interested in exposing cracks in the psyche than in fixing them with tidy endings. Although the stories take place in a variety of eras and settings (with about half set in the northern New Jersey suburbs of Nadelson’s youth), there is a thematic strain that runs through most of them, exploring what it means to be inside and outside of a group. Some of the main characters are outsiders, and some hold the keys of admission.
The title story presents the strongest enunciation of this theme, portraying a synagogue in the aftermath of a prominent member’s indictment for defrauding the state of New Jersey’s prison system. When the arrested man’s wife and children continue to attend services and remain part of the community, the synagogue’s members increasingly turn on them while deluding themselves about their own motivations.
Nadelson tells the story in the first-person plural. It’s a narrative voice that writers rarely employ, and it can come off as gimmicky. But it feels particularly appropriate here in capturing a community that seems to thrive on its power to distinguish “us” from “them.” And it echoes the Ashamnu recitation in the Yom Kippur liturgy, in which proclaiming that “we have sinned” acknowledges the collective nature of our actions.
Many of Nadelson’s stories explore moral failure.
In “Perfect Together,” a teenager is sucked into his town’s battle against the construction of affordable housing. He will be haunted by the realization that the primary force animating the movement he has allowed himself to be part of is racism.
In “In Black and White,” a recent college graduate visiting Europe has arrived in Krakow to satisfy his mother’s request that he visit Auschwitz. And he spends days avoiding doing so, looking instead for the company of “a grief-stricken girl who could use some comfort.” But one suspects that he is his own harshest judge, or will be.
“To Be a Man” by Nicole Krauss (240 pages, Harper)
“One of Us” by Scott Nadelson (275 pages, BkMk Press)