Nathan Englander — who was raised and educated in an Orthodox community on Long Island, spent five years in Israel and now lives in Brooklyn — is one of America’s leading Jewish writers. His remarkable collection of short stories, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank,” was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize, and both of his other previous books (“The Ministry of Special Cases,” a novel, and “For the Relief of Unbearable Urges,” a short story collection) also were deeply informed by Englander’s yiddisher kop — his Jewish head.
With his latest novel, “Dinner at the Center of the Earth” (Knopf), Englander is still contemplating a Jewish cast of characters on a Jewish landscape. But the new book is an espionage thriller, which means that we must now compare Englander to Graham Greene as well as Philip Roth. And he comes off well in the comparison. His new book is a page-turner with all of the moral insight and depth of emotion that characterizes what Englander has called his “thinky” books.
[Nathan Englander Q&A: A novel’s view of Israel-Palestine conflict]
The mystery focuses on a man who is known as Prisoner Z, an American Jew who is being held in solitary confinement by Israeli authorities at a “black site” in the Negev. (The character’s name and circumstances allude to the real-life case of a Mossad agent in Israeli confinement who was called Prisoner X.) As Englander invites us ever deeper into the mystery, we learn that Prisoner Z was serving as an Israeli intelligence agent in Paris when he came under suspicion of treason by his own comrades-in-arms after a delicate mission goes horribly wrong and he tries to fix it.
Prisoner Z is no James Bond. Rather, he is anxious and fretful, tortured with regret and self-doubt, and especially now that he has been “viciously awoken to the consequences of what he’d done, for Israel, for Palestine, and, most urgently, for himself.” He is afraid to touch a newspaper left behind on a café table for fear that it has been swabbed with a deadly poison by his comrades in the Mossad. “[H]e knew how his pursuers worked because he worked for them,” Englander explains. “It was chaos theory and game theory and psy-ops and all the best intelligence and counterintelligence whisked up together.”
“Dinner at the Center of the Earth” consists of two parallel narratives in counterpoint to each other. One is the backstory of Prisoner Z, who starts out as a spy and ends up as a prisoner because, as he tells the Italian waitress who becomes his lover, “I got myself into a bind trying to fix the world.” His scruples do not impress her: “This is why I never dated Jewish men,” she complains. “You all seem very cute for a day or two, and then end up being crazy.” When he extracts a passport and “three fat stacks of bills” from a hiding place in his apartment, the waitress is impressed: “Now you seem less crazy,” she says, “and more like a dangerous spy.” In the finest tradition of the spy novel, nothing turns out to be quite what it seems.
The other story takes place in the hospital room where “the General” — who is plainly Ariel Sharon — lingers on life support. “[T]he great general lies there on his bed, waxed and rouged like a Red Delicious, looking like a fat Lenin on display,” Englander writes. “Their dear departed murderous leader, whose family will not let him die.” While the comatose patient dreams of the victories and defeats, the joys and heartbreaks of his storied life, the conversations between the young man who guards Prisoner Z and his mother, who nurses the General, are the occasion for a running debate about whether the General had been good or bad for the Jews.
“He was going to make peace,” says the nurse, whose name is Ruthi. “Peace was the bomb the General was going to drop.”
“You really believe that?” asks her son.
“If he ever finds his way back, he’ll end up looking more lefty than you,” Ruthi says.
The two stories are delicately and ironically interwoven. “Over the years, on the nights he cannot sleep, which are legion, Prisoner Z has not only greatly improved his penmanship in both Hebrew and English, but has become adept at composing without any light,” Englander writes. “He is busy writing a letter to the General, his pen pal. In the morning he will give it to the guard, to give to his mother, to give to the General, who never writes back.” As the reader will discover, the fate of these two characters is linked in even more dire and fateful ways.
Since Englander set out to write a thriller, he delivers all of the twists and turns, the shocks and surprises, that we are entitled to expect in that genre. But he does not disappoint the readers of his earlier work who know him for his exquisite sensibilities and the sheer power of his literary prose. For that reason, “Dinner at the Center of the Earth” will only expand his reach and enrich his already considerable reputation.
Other New Books
Here are some authors with new books who will be visiting Los Angeles this season:
• Stephen Greenblatt is a Pulitzer Prize-winning Harvard scholar whose work has famously focused on Shakespeare (“Will in the World”). In his latest book, “The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve” (Norton), Greenblatt assumes that the first two human beings whom we meet in the Bible are fictional characters, like Romeo and Juliet, although he readily concedes that the mythic figures we find in the Bible have shaped not only the culture and politics but also the history and destiny of our world.
As part of the ALOUD program of the Library Foundation of Los Angeles, Greenblatt will discuss his new book with his fellow scholar and Pulitzer recipient Jack Miles (“God: A Biography”), an encounter that promises to be a theological battle of titans. The event takes place at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 5 at the Los Angeles Central Library, 630 W. Fifth St. lfla.org.
• If you think back to Lou Grant, the memorable character that Ed Asner played on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” the irascible news director with a heart of gold is entirely consistent with Asner’s public persona as a self-proclaimed “Dauntless Democrat” and a progressive goad.
The point is made in “The Grouchy Historian: An Old-Time Lefty Defends Our Constitution Against Right-Wing Hypocrites and Nut Jobs” (Simon & Schuster), which is co-written by writer and producer Ed. Weinberger. As the title announces, the book is not a Hollywood memoir; rather, it is a spirited argument that the Constitution is the repository of liberal values and the birthright of American progressives.
Not unlike Bernie Sanders, Asner brims with energy and vision that reaches across several generations. Asner and Weinberger will engage in a public conversation about their book under the auspices of LiveTalkLA at 8 p.m. Oct. 17 at All Saints Church, 132 N. Euclid Ave., Pasadena. eventbrite.com.
• People who attend services at the spiritual community called Nashuva already know that its founder, Rabbi Naomi Levy, is a gifted counselor, teacher and storyteller. So do the readers of her previous books, including “Hope Will Find You,” “Talking to God” and “To Begin Again.”
The same wisdom, vision and charisma are on display in her latest book, “Einstein and the Rabbi: Searching for the Soul” (Flatiron Books), a courageous account of the power that prayer and meditation have when facing even the most heartbreaking challenges of life.
As the title suggests, Levy argues that science and faith not only coexist but explain and support each other. “When we feel alone, we are wrong,” Levy writes. “Einstein’s words reaffirmed everything I had come to see in my own experience. Einstein was saying that we are all part of a greater whole.”
The most touching example is a dire medical ordeal that Levy endured, and I promise that the happy ending will bring tears to your eyes. Levy will present her book at several venues in Southern California, including on Nov. 7 at Stephen Wise Temple, 15500 Stephen S. Wise Drive, Los Angeles; and Nov. 15 at Temple Isaiah, 10345 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. us.macmillan.com/author/naomilevy/.
Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal.