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Hope: A Tragedy by Shalom Auslander

*This is a review of an uncorrected proof that was won through Librarything.com.

After his son pulls through a life-threatening illness, Solomon Kugel decides to leave the city and heads to the country for a fresh start with his family. They buy an old farmhouse in the quiet town of Stockton, New York which was “famous for nothing. No one famous had lived there, no famous battles had been waged there, no famous movements arose there, no famous concerts had been held there.” Or so Kugel thought. Little does he know, he’s got a living piece of dead history up in the attic stinking up the whole place. There’s also an arsonist on the loose burning down old farm houses, his marriage is strained, and his career is quickly loosing steam. On it’s most basic level, Hope: A Tragedy is about Kugel’s attempt to deal with these situations. But the novel is also about the attempts, vain attempts as Professor Jove (Kugel’s (imagined?) therapist) might say, to deal with living.

For a book about dealing with living, death is more often than not the subject of Kugel’s every waking thought. He’s obsessed with last words, and keeps a journal of possible winners for his own death bed utterance. Throughout the novel we’re also treated to the last words, real or not, of a multitude of famous people. He’s got two old ladies at death’s door to deal with, who both believe they are holocaust survivors. One of them is his mother. The other is…well, I can’t really give it away, but there’s plenty of disbelief and irony associated with the discovery. His mother’s favorite refrain is “those sons of bitches” and “ever since the war.” This began shortly after Kugel’s father left, and his mother continues to appropriate Holocaust history as her own, even stealing lines from Anne Frank, the “Jewish Jesus” of eternal victimhood. When he was eight, Kugel’s mother brought him a lamp and told him that it was his grandfather. This give poor Kugel an innate fear of inanimate objects:

If the lamp shade could be his grandfather, was the sofa his cousin? Was the ottoman his aunt? The armoire, he was certain, was giving him filthy looks. For weeks he crept outside and peed against the apartment house wall, concerned that perhaps the toilet was his uncle, the bathroom mirror an unknown but all-seeing relation disgusted by his most secret rituals.

Tied up in this black little novel is the question of survivor’s guilt. Or, more precisely, the guilt of those who have not suffered at all. Though Jewish, the Kugels are fifth-generation Americans with only the most distant relations victims of the Holocaust. As his unwillingness to deal with his mother (who has taken up a valuable rentable room in their new house because she’s supposedly dying) and the attic dweller continues, his marriage and sanity deteriorate.

In this book, hope, the belief that things can or will get better, is the greatest tragedy of all. Optimism is a curse and Kugel’s constant hope that things will get better for him and for his family provides much of the tragi-comedy of this novel. Heartbreaking is not a word I would use to describe this story, even though the reader is witness to the quiet dissolution of a family and the protagonist’s plummet towards death; it’s too black, and more than anything too funny, to be considered heartbreaking. It’s also too dead-pan. There are no emotional punches here, no sentimentality; the tone is utterly flat and unforgiving. While driving down the road one day, Kugel spies a small group of deer standing on the side of the road, staring at some bushes on the other. getting out to investigate he finds a fawn with a huge gash in her belly, dying:

He rested the tips of his first two fingers on the fawn’s chest–shh–feeling her heart underneath racing, desperate; slowly, delicately Kugel pressed his two fingers into the gash on her belly. She blinked, licked her lips. She felt warm inside and wet; Kugel moved his fingers slightly, pressing them in deeper until he could feel her terrified heart thumping against the tips of his fingers. Kugel glanced up to the deer watching him from across the way; they seemed to think he was helping, or that there was a chance he might, and for a moment he felt remorse forgiving them such hope. Was that such a crime though Professor? Was a moment of false hope going to make their loss any greater? What was the greater kindness? Wasn’t pretending like this, lying, faking, his fingertips on her heart, a crease on his brow, the least he could do? The few moments he kept his fingers inside her–doing nothing–were a few moments more that they could believe in some answer; wasn’t that the kindest thing he could do for them?

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. 

Ask and thou shall receive. 

For God so loved the world He gave His only begotten son, that whosoever believes in Him will not perish but will have everlasting life.

Bullshit, sure, but good bullshit. The best bullshit. A lie, but the whole thing was a lie, what was one more to ease the pain?

And then the fawn sighed deeply, and rested her head, and Kugel pressed his fingers against her heart and it stopped. After a moment, Kugel gently removed his fingers from her wound; they were warm, wet, covered with dark red, almost black, blood. Kugel held his fingers up to his nose, inhaled deeply, and then, slowly, slowly, he placed them into his mouth and closed his eyes.

Fuck all of you motherfuckers, he thought.

Toodle-oo.

Freudian kicks aside, this is the quietest, most intimate moment in the novel, and it’s interrupted by someone crashing into the car Kugel left in the middle of the road. For a father concerned enough about his son to move to the country, and for a man on the brink of losing his wife, the novel spends very little time with them. Though the novel is set in third-person PoV, it might as well be first person, as the reader is privy (or trapped, depending on how comfy you are in his head) almost exclusively to Kugel’s often, hilarious, often utterly depressing musings. While I wouldn’t call him unreliable, I don’t entirely trust the words of a man clearly loosing his sanity.

Also tied up in this book are questions of the past, what it means, why we insist on remembering it, and how often we rewrite it to suit our own needs. There were many passages I loved in this book, underlined and dog-eared. This book won’t be for everyone, and the main reason I loved it was because it’s always nice to see your own cynicism reflected back at you in witty, neatly packaged phrases and sentences. I laughed  aloud, hard, several times while reading Auslander’s novel. If hope is the greatest tragedy of humanity, then sometimes it’s just enough to have a good, black laugh now and then. If that’s what you’re in the mood for, then I’d highly recommend this book. If you prefer to always look on the bright side of life, wait fifty years and then give this novel a try. For more information on Shalom Auslander and his other works, please visit his webpage at www.shalomauslander.com. Hope: A Tragedy will be published by Riverhead Books on January 12th, 2012.

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