Funny thing about humor – so very often on the page it falls, well, flat.
A great, or even good, funny novel is a rare thing, indeed. For those handsful of good or great funny novels that have stood the test of time, by far the most prevalent are dark comedies. Books that trade in gallows humor, taboo topics, or the meaninglessness of it all pretty much own the corner. A biting, even bitter, satirist is no one to go toe-to-toe with if you know what’s bad for you.
With Hope: a Tragedy, Shalom Auslander manages to muscle his way into some pretty esteemed company: Jonathan Swift (if you think the premise behind A Modest Proposal could never be matched on the outrageous scale, think again), Voltaire (who makes more than one appearance here in a virtual catalogue of allusions to great authors), Franz Kafka (didn’t think he was funny – think again), Kurt Vonnegut (Auslander’s pacing comes as close to KV as anyone has, ever), and Fay Weldon (for a sheer modern over-the-top premise and acerbic point of view). Think Samuel Beckett, think of poor, hapless Job, deftly blended with Woody Allen and Rodney Dangerfield.
The immediate literary godfather here though is Philip Roth: Auslander is Roth without the misogyny, though the misanthropy is decidedly intact.
What’s the premise, you ask? Solomon Kugel, our hero, flees the city for rural upstate New York, purchasing a 19th-century farmhouse for his family and himself. As soon as they move in, a mysterious arsonist targets farmhouses throughout the area. Hope opens with Kugel lying in bed, listening to all the sounds a 100-plus-year-old home can make, believing the arsonist has broken in with each and every sound he hears, and meditating on all the possible ways one may die and all the possible last things he might say with his last breath.
In addition, he thinks of the last words of many a famous person. Who knew that the last thing Allen Ginsberg said was “Toodle-loo”?
Kugel finally convinces himself that he needs to go to the attic to investigate if the arsonist has broken in or, as he is hoping, to discover that it is “probably just mice.”
SPOILER AHEAD! SPOILER AHEAD! SPOILER AHEAD!
What he discovers, or, rather, whom he discovers, sets off a catastrophic chain of events that propels the novel:
That’s right, he discovers an aged, decrepit, slightly profane Anne Frank. Hiding. In his attic.
I really don’t know what to say after that and that is probably a very good thing. The book is at once sacrilegious, hysterically funny, surprisingly moving, and very good, indeed. How this event takes over his life (he thinks, I’ll call the police, then he imagines a NY Post-type headline: “Jew Drops Dime on Holocaust Survivor”), and impacts his mother, his wife, and his young son, Jonah, but most particularly himself, is the substance of the novel. A number of leitmotifs appear again and again throughout the novel, signaled by little catch phrases (a la Vonnegut’s “so it goes”). The last words of famous people (Jean-Paul Sartre: “I failed”) appear again and again (Gary Gilmore: “Let’s do it”), unexpectedly, delightfully (“Toodle-loo”) even.
Kugel’s mother is over-the-top completely, disturbingly so, as in many a Jewish-American novel, and though the book is very funny, it has potential to offend. Humor and the Holocaust, catch phrases and concentration camps, are definitely not for everyone.
Then again books replete with anecdotes about Spinoza and his mother’s bed, Alan Dershowitz as cultural hero, matzoh, borscht, and wheat allergies, and a protaganist whose thoughts both outrage and endear do have a potential audience and Hope: a Tragedy is no exception. One thing I know for certain: this is a book that will be showing up on many end of the year best lists in 2012 and I wouldn’t be surprised if it didn’t walk away with a major prize or two.
If it is your kind of book, and you know who you are, don’t hesitate. It doesn’t matter what your background or religion.
Shalom Auslander is an equal opportunity offender.