The allusion to Raymond Carver's "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love" in the title piece is a little stretched, but it is a terrific story just the same. The similarity is mainly the situation of a alcohol-fueled conversation between two married couples that reveal some uncomfortable truths. Englander does not go for Carver's compact elegance, but his truths would strike home under any title. The story explores the position of Jews in the modern world. Debbie and Lauren were best friends in yeshiva school, but have taken different directions. Debbie has married a secular Jew, relaxed her observance, and now keeps touch with her heritage mainly through an obsessive interest in the Holocaust. Lauren has become ultra-orthodox, changed her name to Shoshana, and moved with her husband Yerucham (formerly Mark) to Israel, where she has borne ten children, all girls. For Yerucham, the real Holocaust is not what happened in the past, but the dilution occurring now as Jew marries Gentile.
The extremes possible in Jewish belief are shown even more strongly in the second story, "Sister Hills," my favorite of the collection. Set in a pioneering settlement in Samaria over the course of four decades (1973, 1987, 2000, and 2011), it represents both the heroism of the settler movement and the stubbornness that, rather than give up on a principle, would persist with a situation in which nobody wins. Similar issues are raised by the next story, "How We Avenged the Blums," about a group of suburban boys getting their own back on an anti-Semitic bully, only to have to confront the violence they have unleashed in themselves. But it is a looser story that leads to a distinct drop in tension in the middle of the book, with the phantasmagorical "Peep Show," about the guilt felt by a Jewish apostate when he indulges in a momentary taste for porn, and "Everything I Know About My Family on My Mother's Side," a sprawling though often touching memoir.
But Englander picks up again with two of the final stories: "Camp Sundown," a black tragicomedy about vengeance in a lakeside camp for retirees in the Berkshires, and "Free Fruit for Young Widows," which takes us back to Israel and beyond that to a Holocaust survival story which raises moral issues that will not easily be set aside. Englander fills his stories with fierce characters who speak fractured English laced with untranslated phrases of Yiddish, and who harbor convictions hard as basalt. They are uncomfortable people to meet, but their extremes are compelling. Someone in almost every story will transgress some norm of accepted behavior, posing the intense moral and political question of what is justifiable by history or by belief. I have not seen such writing since Etgar Keret's GAZA BLUES; if only Englander could avoid his occasional tendency to dilute it.