Nathan Englander moves into the front ranks of American fiction writers with his new novel, “kaddish.com“. Earlier books of short fiction and his last novel “Dinner at the Center of the Earth”manifest an enormous creative talent, a writer who can be extremely serious as well as sarcastic and funny. “kaddish.com” falls into the latter category; it’s zany, cynical, hilarious, and brilliantly and very tightly written.
The world of Orthodox Jews will probably be a new one for most readers, but its main theme is the tension between the traditional orthodox and the increasingly secularized Jews of America. Larry, the ne’er do-well secularized son of a dying father, is in Memphis (from hometown Brooklyn) to say good-bye to that father, who, on his deathbed, is trying to bring Larry back into the fold of the orthodox. Larry’s staying with his sister and her family, who live the heavily ritualized lives of the orthodox. The insomniac Larry is staying in one of his sister’s sons’ rooms, where he is fascinated and annoyed concurrently by this son’s aquarium (it keeps him up at night because of the lights in it), and, after the father’s death, the truly zany parts of the novel begin. In this house of ritual and stylized mourning, Larry sneaks in some porn and masturbates into the fish tank.
As the oldest son, Larry’s expected to say prayers for his father’s soul (the kaddish of the title) for eleven months, daily, so that, as the Orthodox Jews believe, his soul will be saved. The scene in “kaddish.com” in which Larry, his sister, the local rabbi and a friend of the rabbi’s specializing in mourning rituals explain Larry’s obligations to him is one of the most hilarious in the novel, civility thrown to the winds on everyone’s part and the hostility between Larry and his believing sister devolves into gutter language, rage, tears: the classic family fight after a funeral with all gloves off.
Larry’s great compromise, approved by the desperate rabbi, is to go online where he finds a site in Israel called “kaddish.com“: you send your money online to what appear to be young yeshiva students in Israel who will say these prayers for you for presumably a large fee. The clash and crash between Orthodox ritual and the world of online grieving is floor-poundingly funny, and it’s Larry’s great compromise. Until his guilt hits, that most effective of Jewish emotions.
The newly transformed Larry becomes a teacher in a Hebrew school in Brooklyn, totally transformed, marries an Orthodox woman and has two children. His entire life now revolves around Orthodox Judaism, but his old obsessions, the computer amongst them, begin to sneak back in, and Larry’s now determined to find the student who said kaddish all these years ago for him. How he does this, using the great computer skills of one very young student at his school, is both hilarious and highly cynical, full of hilarity and obsession. Larry ends up in Israel with a map drawn by his student via google maps, and although the reader knows that some scam has occurred, suffice it to say that Larry will actually end up finding the scammer, and will eventually set up a business with him saying kaddish for the thousands of people who’ve been scammed by kaddish.com. Englander’s observations about certain Israelis who Larry meets in Jerusalem (the descriptions of which are also hilarious) are taut and astute and clever.
Hints of Philip Roth appear in Englander’s novel, which the reader can’t help but notice and appreciate. Englander’s tone is perfect: this isn’t slapstick at all, nor is it farce; Englander’s tone is tighter than either, as the novel never veers into the absurd (nor into anything anti-Semitic at all). Larry’s journey back into being “the good son” his father wanted is also sweet and occasionally tender; the emotional range of the novel is complex while using levity throughout as a balance. It’s quite a feat.