- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 24, 2006

THE NIMROD FLIPOUT

By Etgar Keret

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $12, 176 pages

REVIEWED BY SONNY BUNCH

Etgar Keret’s new collection of short stories, “The Nimrod Flipout,” kicks off with an odd bang: “Fatso” is the story a man deeply in love with a beautiful young woman, only to discover that at night she turns into a hairy little guy who enjoys watching soccer and loves going out and getting drunk.

A couple hundred words later the boyfriend has not just accepted the bizarre situation, he revels in it: “Time goes by and you’re still together. The sex just gets better and better. She’s not so young anymore, and neither are you, and suddenly you find yourselves talking about a baby. And at night, you and fatso hit the town like you’ve never done in your life. He takes you to restaurants and bars you didn’t even know existed, and you dance on the tables and break plates like there’s no tomorrow.”

We’re not exactly in Kansas any more. Or Tel Aviv.

One of the joys of this collection by Mr. Keret, a young Israeli writer, is the insight it gives into the life of his countrymen. While it is easy for Americans to sit back and say that Israel is our closest ally in the Middle East because it is a democracy like we are, it is hard to understand just how different (and difficult) daily existence in the two countries can be. Terrorism constantly looms in Israel’s background, but life goes on as if nothing is out of the ordinary.

The opening of “Surprise Egg” has a striking example of Mr. Keret’s nonchalance towards the continuous threat of violent death: “Listen, a true story. About three months ago a woman about thirty-two years old met her death in a suicide bomb attack near a bus stop. She wasn’t the only one who met her death, lots of others did too. But this story is about her.”

Mr. Keret’s indifferent description of how this woman “met her death” is breathtaking — were the same story to be written in the United States in the aftermath of a terrorist attack, it would almost certainly be about how she died, or what the motivation of the killer was, or why the United States is to blame. It would almost certainly not be about the results of the woman’s autopsy.

This is not to suggest that Mr. Keret is complacent about the world in which he lives; he clearly wishes that the violence wracking his homeland would come to an end. Ultimately, though, he realizes that there is no good, clean way to make it happen.

In “For only 9.99 (Inc. Tax and Postage),” Mr. Keret composes a wistful tale in which world peace is achieved through the ridiculous advertisements placed in the back of magazines. The classified section he peruses offers courses related to the meaning of life, making people pay attention to you, and, most importantly for Israel, turning enemies into friends. If only peace could be achieved so easily (and at such a bargain rate).

Mr. Keret also understands that peace must be achieved at gunpoint from time to time. In “Shooting Tuvia,” he spins the tale of a boy who is given a dog that spends most of its time barking at others and being a general cur. Eventually, the dog bites the boy’s sister, and must be gotten rid of. So his father drops the dog in a river, making sure the current washes him away.

The dog finds his way back to the house, however, and after another transgression is driven thirty miles away and left on the side of the road. Once again Tuvia makes his way back to his owner and, after biting the boy’s grandmother, is taken out to a dump and shot in the head by the father (using his older son’s Israeli Defense Force issue M16).

After several months the dog again shows up, but all the fight has been taken out of him: “Every now and then, when someone would pass by our fence on a bike, or just make some noise, you could still see him getting worked up but somehow, just when he was about to lunge, he always ran out of steam.”

It is hard to imagine a cleverer metaphor for dealing with those who would kill you for no better reason than your existence. While it would be fantastic if all the world’s enemies could sit down and work out their problems just by talking, as in “For Only 9.99 (Inc. Tax and Postage),” it is a pipedream.

After trying to deal with the dog in a peaceful, live-and-let-live fashion, the father’s hand is forced by the dog’s refusal to behave (or, at the very least, go his own way). While he isn’t successful in his attempt to kill the family pup (just as Israel hasn’t been successful in stopping all of the violence toward it), the dog’s blind urge to hurt everyone around him has been muted (despite all the saber rattling by Arab countries in the Middle East there hasn’t been another Yom Kippur War, has there?).

“The Nimrod Flipout” is not intended to be a geopolitical treatise by any means. Almost all of the stories revolve around relationships and the various difficulties that lie therein. Mr. Keret uses his quirky sense of humor to examine serious, long-term relationships (“Horsie,” in which a couple gives birth to a pony), one-night stands (“A Good-Looking Couple,” which takes its title from the musings of the front door of an apartment), and parent-child relationships (“Pride and Joy,” which features parents who shrink as their “amazing child” grows up).

Mr. Keret’s incredible stories are complemented by his laconic style. Bizarre things happen in each and every one of them, but neither he nor his characters bat an eye at the oddities surrounding them. Like the undercurrent of terrorism, this could be an aspect of the Israeli psyche. When unimaginably awful things can happen at any time and in any place, why bat an eye when a couple gives birth to an equine child?

Sonny Bunch is assistant editor for the Weekly Standard.

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