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Belski suffers guilt over his own contribution to the decline of the Jewish religion, especially since he married a gentile and now has a gentile daughter. As if he can't conjure up enough angst on his own, his great-grandfather appears before him in a dream to admonish him for neglecting the obligations of his faith.
For Belski, the dilemma is how an assimilated intellectual can connect with an ancient and irrational (to him) religion without losing his sense of self. Is he the self-hating Jew that his obstreperous colleague pegs him for? Can his wife and daughter bully him into opening up his heart and letting in a little joy? Belski tries to come to grips with the meaninglessness of modern life, the demands of tradition, the nature of love and fidelity, and the true significance of the lyrics to Goodnight Irene.
Joseph Skibell has written a novel that is sad, funny, daring, and ultimately redemptive.
Guilty pleasure: the Jewish anti-hero
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 famouslyand anxiouslyturned 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-Jewessthis 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 novelin which the author's ancestor, murdered by the Nazis, rises out of the mass grave to pursue ghostly adventureshis 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.