What was it that Tolstoy said about unhappy families?
While each may in fact be unique in its discontent, surely the one recalled here by Auslander (Beware of God: Stories, 2005) stands out from the rest for sheer outlandish, operatic misery. Haunted by the ghost of a first son who died in toddlerhood, the author’s Orthodox Jewish father became a broken, brutish alcoholic. His mother, an embittered woman convinced she married beneath her, lusted vocally after the achievements and wealth of her two brothers, both rabbis. This childhood tale of woe could be merely maudlin, but Auslander brings a mordant sense of humor to his portraits of encounters with the non-Orthodox and their Trans Ams, and of jockeying for position in his isolated upstate New York community. The book begins with the author, who fled this insular world to work in New York City, discovering that wife Orli, a fellow religious refugee, was pregnant—an occasion to celebrate for many, but Auslander, who grew up terrified of a vengeful God, saw it more like the setup to a cosmic joke. “I know this God, I know how he works,” he writes. “On the drive home from the hospital, we’ll collide head-on with a drunk driver and [my wife and son will] both die later… That would be so God.” The author’s attempts to rid himself of the scheming deity under whose thumb he came of age became tangled up in his strained relationship with his family, but he tells this sad story with a crucial touch of satire. In the midst of a description of his waking nightmares of theistic vengeance, a friend interrupted to point out that Auslander’s conviction that God might have a personal vendetta against him was slightly solipsistic. He’s scheming against you, too, Auslander responded: “You just don’t notice it.”
An often breathtakingly irreverent look at religion and the humorous side of exorcising the past.