Bad Is Good

Two years ago Israeli author Etgar Keret published a children’s book about a man who saves his family by abandoning it. In Dad Runs Away With the Circus, the titular father is so seduced by a traveling group of lion-tamers, elephants, plate-spinners, and acrobats that (after a brief argument with Mom) he chooses to leave his son and daughter and perform under the big top for a while. He eventually returns home, but only after a whirlwind global tour. “Everything went back to being the same as it always had been,” Keret writes—except for Dad being able to use his newfound fire-breathing skills to cook hotdogs at barbecues.

The book is as playful as any piece of kiddie lit you might find, but it’s still a surprise: Using a mid-life crisis, or any family dysfunction, for comic relief doesn’t get a lot of traction in American letters these days. Blame the memoir glut, blame sobersided MFA programs, blame Oprah—for whatever reason, a lot of popular American writing about families takes its main theme as fixing the flaws that plague us. Into this arid arena arrives Keret, a very funny and very odd writer who aggressively turns the family-problem story inside out. Our screwups with our parents, kids, and lovers are the things we ought to revel in, he argues—they’re what save us, make us whole. That’s not necessarily a novel theme, and for a while there was a small tribe of writers making hay of all the nervous handwringing by letting their freak flag fly: Joseph Heller for example, or Kurt Vonnegut, Philip Roth, even early John Irving. These days, however, it’s an idea we only get slathered in gloom from Rick Moody, soaked in irony from Dave Eggers, and not at all from melodrama pimps like Nicholas Sparks. All of those three can give you love and death, but none of them would set a comic love story in Uzbekistan, which happens to be where the gates of hell are.

Keret was born in 1967, the son of two Polish-born holocaust survivors; he grew up in Israel and, by his account, had a dismal time during his mandatory military service, made worse by the suicide of one of his army buddies. This is the formula that might have produced a drearily glum fiction voice for latter-day disaffected Israelis, but Keret’s refused the role. Instead his off-kilter short-stories, written in Hebrew, have earned him an Eggers- and Moody-like celebrity among young readers in Israel. He’s sold more than two hundred thousand copies of his collections and earned the title of most-shoplifted author in the country—an Israeli Bukowski.

The Nimrod Flipout, his second collection of stories published in the U.S., offers thirty glimpses into beautifully bizarre circumstances and predicaments. In “Fatso,” the narrator’s girlfriend lets him in on a secret: “What if I told you that at night I turn into a heavy, hairy man, with no neck, with a gold ring on his pinky, would you still love me?” No joke, she really does become a burly bully at night, but the hero finds that there’s a best-of-both-worlds aspect to this transformation; sex with the woman’s pretty good, and the guy knows good steak joints. A young boy in “Pride and Joy” suffers from a “rare family disease” in which the parents become shorter as the child grows taller; to keep Mom and Dad from disappearing entirely he tries to stunt his growth. His smoking, along with his erratic sleeping and eating patterns, alienates him from his peers—nobody said balancing the trials of adolescence with family illness was going to be easy. But when the boy finally gets to kiss a girl, his father’s right there cheering like a soccer dad, sitting in his son’s shirt pocket.

Those stories, like nearly everything Keret writes, are commercial-break short. Few of the pieces in The Nimrod Flipout or its 2001 predecessor, The Bus Driver Who Wanted to Be God, run longer than ten pages; the closest he’s come to a novel is “Kneller’s Happy Campers,” a forty-page story written as a series of vignettes in the latter book, set in a seriocomic afterworld for people who’ve killed themselves. (It’s been adapted into a film, Wristcutters: A Love Story, which features a cameo by Tom Waits, a very Keretian musician.) That brevity helps give many of Keret’s stories the intensity and impact of fables, but without the pat moralizing. “Dirt,” all of two pages long, twins the narrator’s fantasy about opening a chain of laundromats for singles (“wherever there are lonely people and dirty laundry, they’ll always come to me”) with a sort of prayer for his father, who is sick with guilt over the narrator’s suicide. In “For Only 9.99 (Incl. Tax and Postage),” a boy writes in for a pamphlet alleging to contain the meaning of life—which turns out to be the real deal, though the boy discovers this knowledge doesn’t do anything about your fear of death, or angry religious mobs, or dads who think you’re being bilked. In the end the publisher releases a new pamphlet solving a more mundane problem, on sale for 29.99, and the story closes with a vaudevillian kicker: “One lucky break, and already they go and up the price.”

You’ll notice a few recurring themes here: boys navigating adolescence, parents with commanding and often domineering roles, suicide and its aftershocks. And you might also notice a distinct lack of what you might call Israeli-ness. Keret’s stories are often set in Tel Aviv and sometimes reference Middle Eastern politics in passing, but the author seems to be striving for universality in his stories. “When you wake up in the morning,” he told Newsweek, “before you’ve had your first cup of coffee, what you think about is not, Why isn’t there a Palestinian state? You say, ‘Why doesn’t my girlfriend love me?’ Or ‘I hope somebody didn’t steal my car.’” Keret’s taken a few whacks in his homeland for such attitudes, and he hasn’t had an easier go of it in the U.S.: Reviewing The Bus Driver Who Wanted to Be God in the New York Times Book Review, novelist Benjamin Anastas dunned Keret for choosing to “provoke without consequence, entertain without investment, and value above all things the pursuit of fleeting pleasures.”

It wouldn’t be the first time a critic’s mistaken comedy and brevity for shallowness. But if Anastas means that Keret often fails to tell the story straight, he’s guilty as charged. Unquestionably, he can be glib and hollow on occasion: The three pages of “My Girlfriend’s Naked” don’t contain much more insight than the three words of its title, and “Malffunction” is an unfunny one-page gag about a balky keyboard. And he’s not much for stylized characterization; there usually isn’t the room.

But that’s not to say his stories are mechanical, emotionless morality tales—and Keret never once confuses the humor he finds in his characters’ predicaments with an opportunity for a cheap shot. The most carefully designed piece in The Nimrod Flipout is the title story, in which three young men are haunted by the ghost of Nimrod, an army buddy who killed himself. His intervention in the lives of the three men slowly frays the braid of their friendship, and the power of the story resides in how Keret locates the point at which mourning a lost friend stops being commemorative and starts to mean you’re living in the past.

The outsized and fable-like qualities of Keret’s stories make them great fodder for graphic novels; as proof, Jetlag collects five drawn by members of the Tel Aviv comic collective Actus. (It was first published in Israel in 1998, finally making its way to the U.S. in February.) The artists seem to key in on Keret at his weirdest, picking one tale about a plane that’s intentionally going to crash in the ocean (“so people will take the whole flight safety issue more seriously”), and another in which the occupants of hell get a twenty-four-hour furlough in Uzbekistan once a century. But “Margolis,” a loyal take on the Bus Driver story “Breaking the Pig,” is both the best-turned tale and least absurd—a clean, simple, and funny inversion of typical morality tales about fathers and sons. A man gives his son a piggy bank in order to teach him the value of money, but as the pig gets stuffed with coins and cash, the boy begins to cherish it more; he’s completely forgotten the desire for a skateboard that prompted the pig’s arrival in the first place.

That’s almost banal on its face, but “Margolis,” like many Keret family tales, is thick with thorns. The boy’s affection for the piggy bank reflects his growing distance from his already-remote father, who creates an austere chill in the household. The boy tells Margolis, named “after somebody who used to live in our mailbox and dad couldn’t scratch his name off the sticker,” that he loves him more than his mother and father. But that statement comes off as neither cute nor tragic, nor even bittersweet. It charmingly reflects how Margolis is the first thing the boy’s been able to love, and it maps the gulf between the boy and his father with a Carver-like elegance and a surrealistic tinge.

All of these assets have made Keret something of a celebrity in American alt-culture spheres, though maybe the reason his stories get read on This American Life have as much to do with their potency as their brevity. An Etgar Keret novel could easily be a complete disaster—endless cuteness and piled-on absurdities from a writer who isn’t at his best when he has to control a narrative throughline. But I wonder if folks didn’t say the same thing about Roth circa Goodbye, Columbus. The liberating power of dysfunction has been a tough sell in these parts for a while, and it may very well take a bright foreigner like Keret to make the case. An Israeli writing the next Great American Novel would be a beautiful, very Keretian thing.

“When you truly love somebody, all those things that at the beginning are really alienating are things you learn to love,” Keret once told an interviewer, by way of explaining “Fatso.” But that statement serves as a sort of motto for about everything he’s written. For the past decade of Prozac Nation-ed memoirs and Corrections-obsessed novels, the prevailing sensibility in popular American writing has been, well, sensible, focused on the path to healing, and looking at broken homes as ships to be righted. Keret’s simple assertion—that we can no more safely remove our flaws than we can remove, say, an artery—is a useful prescription. Let the healing begin.