Summary and book reviews of For The Relief of Unbearable Urges by Nathan Englander

For The Relief of Unbearable Urges

by Nathan Englander

For The Relief of Unbearable Urges
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     Not Yet Rated
  • First Published:
    Apr 1999, 205 pages
    Paperback:
    Mar 2000, 224 pages

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Book Summary

A work of stunning authority and imagination - a book that is as wondrous and joyful as it is wrenchingly sad, and that heralds the arrival of a profoundly gifted new storyteller.

Already sold in eight countries around the world, these nine energized, irreverent stories from Nathan Englander introduce an astonishing new talent.

In Englander's amazingly taut and ambitious "The Twenty-seventh Man," a clerical error lands earnest, unpublished Pinchas Pelovits in prison with twenty-six writers slated for execution at Stalin's command, and in the grip of torture Pinchas composes a mini-masterpiece, which he recites in one glorious moment before author and audience are simultaneously annihilated. In "The Gilgul of Park Avenue," a Protestant has a religious awakening in the back of a New York taxi. In the collection's hilarious title story, a Hasidic man incensed by his wife's interminable menstrual cycle gets a dispensation from his rabbi to see a prostitute.

The stories in For the Relief of Unbearable Urges are powerfully inventive and often haunting, steeped in the weight of Jewish history and in the customs of Orthodox life. But it is in the largeness of their spirit-- a spirit that finds in doubt a doorway to faith, that sees in despair a chance for the heart to deepen--and in the wisdom that so prodigiously transcends the author's twenty-eight years, that these stories are truly remarkable. Nathan Englander envisions a group of Polish Jews herded toward a train bound for Auschwitz and in a deft imaginative twist turns them into acrobats tumbling out of harm's way; he takes an elderly wigmaker and makes her, for a single moment, beautiful. Again and again, Englander does what feels impossible: he finds, wherever he looks, a province beyond death's dominion.

For the Relief of Unbearable Urges is a work of stunning authority and imagination--a book that is as wondrous and joyful as it is wrenchingly sad, and that heralds the arrival of a profoundly gifted new storyteller.

From "The Twenty-Seventh Man"

The orders were given from Stalin's country house at Kuntsevo. He relayed them to the agent in charge with no greater emotion than for the killing of kulaks or clergy or the outspoken wives of very dear friends. The accused were to be apprehended the same day, arrive at the prison gates at the same moment, and--with a gasp and simultaneous final breath--be sent off to their damnation in a single rattling burst of gunfire.

It was not an issue of hatred, only one of allegiance. For Stalin knew there could be loyalty to only one nation. What he did not know so well were the authors' names on his list. When it was presented to him the next morning he signed the warrant anyway, though there were now twenty-seven, and yesterday there had been twenty-six.

No matter, except maybe to the twenty-seventh.

The orders left little room for variation, and none for tardiness. They were to be carried out in secrecy and--the only point that was ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
The questions and discussion topics that follow are intended to enhance your group's reading of Nathan Englander's For the Relief of Unbearable Urges, one of the most widely acclaimed debuts in recent contemporary fiction. With remarkable deftness, humor, and wisdom, Nathan Englander illuminates the dilemmas of his characters as they struggle with marital difficulty, obsession, desire, and spiritual crisis. The result is a collection of unforgettable modern fables that transcend the particularities of time and place.

Members of a fabled Hasidic sect, rounded up to be sent to a concentration camp, avoid their fate by posing as acrobats on a circus train; an aging wigmaker pursues a young delivery man in New York City so that she ...
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Reviews

Media Reviews

The Economist Review

A pointed and poignant debut group of short stories set in the Hassidic community, which manages to offer illumination not just on the Hassidim (who are rarely described in fiction) but also universal desires.

Salon

Although he's been compared to Isaac Bashevis Singer, Bernard Malamud and Philip Roth, Englander recalls for me -- and I mean this without irony -- the best of John Cheever. Even though his characters would never sit down at the same table with Cheever's, his invented Orthodox community of Royal Hills, Brooklyn, has a presence and an undercurrent of longing reminiscent of Cheever's suburban enclaves. Subtle characterizations, an instinct for detail and a sense of restraint already mark the 28-year-old Englander as a substantial talent in short fiction.

The New York Times - Michiko Kakutani

Daring, funny, exuberant....His stories [share] the powerful mixture of allegory and quotidian detail that Bernard Malamud pioneered...At the same time, Mr. Englander's voice is distinctly his own -- keenly attuned to both the absurdities of life and its undertow of sadness.

Kirkus Reviews

An exemplary fusion of what T.S. Eliot called "Tradition and the Individual Talent," and a truly remarkable debut.

Author Blurb Ann Beattie
Every so often there's a new voice that entirely revitalizes the short story. It happened with Richard Ford, and with Denis Johnson, and with Thom Jones. It's happening again with Nathan Englander, whose precise, funny, heartbreaking, well-controlled but never contrived stories open a window on a fascinating landscape we might never have known was there. It's the best story collection I've read in ages.

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