Review: Novelist explores the secular and religious divide

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It's 1999, and Larry, a lapsed Jew from Brooklyn, is at his sister Dina's house in Memphis for their father's funeral.

Since he won't commit to reciting the Jewish prayer for the dead every day for 11 months, as required by Jewish law, she agrees to let him go online and pay a proxy to do it. Think Jewish TaskRabbit.

Fast forward 20 years and Larry, now known as Shuli, has returned to the faith, with a vengeance. He's married, with two children, teaching at the yeshiva in Brooklyn he attended, and barely scraping by.

When a chance encounter with a troubled youth triggers an epic attack of guilt for his long-ago rebellion, Shuli goes off on a quixotic mission to find the proxy he once hired on kaddish.com and reclaim the right to properly mourn his father.

Meshuggeh? Yes, and also the premise of Nathan Englander's latest novel, a marvelous comic fable that juxtaposes the two Larrys and implicitly asks: Which one is crazier?

There's Larry No. 1, who smoked pot, practiced Zen meditation, and was addicted to porn. The chapters narrated in that voice are laugh-out-loud funny, reminiscent of "Portnoy's Complaint."

"Honestly," he thinks, "what does it hurt their dead father if Larry says a prayer or not. Does anyone really think God sits up there with a scorecard, checking off every one of Larry's blessings?"

But, of course, Dina does.

Then there's Larry No. 2, or Shuli, whose desire to atone for his past is so extreme that he's willing to abandon his family, move to Jerusalem, and sleep in a park to make things right with his deceased dad.

Englander's expansive imagination is such that he can convincingly write the part of a secular Jewish hipster and a born-again Jew - and do it with the Yiddish inflections of a Borscht Belt comedian.

Both lifestyles, he suggests, leave something to be desired, both those who live large parts of their lives on the internet, and those who are "back and forth to Israel ... as if one could take the Lincoln Tunnel and find Jerusalem on the other side."

While Larry/Shuli can be exasperating and Dina doctrinaire, their father is a gem. Even on his death bed, this deeply devout man has compassion for his wayward, searching son.

"This period in your life - it feels like it's forever, but if you're lucky, life is long and each of these forevers will one day seem fleeting."

If only his children were so wise. But if they were, we wouldn't have this delight of a novel.

 

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