Fans of Woody Allen know by heart the figure of the American Jewish male who feels guilt (more or less) over abandoning his faith tradition. Readers of Saul Bellow, Philip Roth and Cynthia Ozick have likewise enjoyed these authors' mapping out of nearly every conceivable corner of literary territory for the assimilated Jew. What freshness of vision could a young novelist possibly bring, then, to the character of the wayward schlemiel?Joseph Skibell rises magnificently to the challenge in his second novel, The English Disease. Skibell's comic trump card is a brilliant one: his anti-hero, musicologist Charles Belski, suffers an anxiety about turning away from Judaism that is fueled by his professional investigations of Gustav Mahler, a Jewish-Austrian composer who famously and anxiously turned away from Judaism. One angst is thus laid on top of another, confirming the old joke that "Ph.
D." stands for "Piled Higher and Deeper." Belski's academic absurdities are matched by the ones in his personal life. Having married a "shiksa goddess" a beautiful, blond non-Jewess this connoisseur of self-loathing is determined to make himself miserable for doing so. Things go from bad to worse when a daughter arrives; parenthood becomes just one more rite in his orgy of guilt.
The delight of the novel lies in the hilarity and finesse with which Belski delivers his rueful, razor-sharp reports from the front lines of misery. As Skibell demonstrated in his first novel in which the author's ancestor, murdered by the Nazis, rises out of the mass grave to pursue ghostly adventures his fictional chutzpah towards the darkest chapter in Jewish history knows no bounds. The success of both novels hinges on outrageous comic effects that boldly take on the spiritual risks of confronting the Holocaust.
In the very first sentence of the novel, Belski defines the "English Disease" as a morbid love of ruined things. When it comes to Belski, readers of The English Disease will have it bad. Michael Alec Rose teaches at Vanderbilt University's Blair School of Music.