Novelists in the Nineties

In the 1970s, literary critics predicted the demise of the Jewish American novel. A talented group of novelists proved them wrong.

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Melvin Jules Bukiet

Melvin James Bukiet

If Stern discovered his Jewish milieu largely by happenstance, other writers might argue that they had their fictional territory staked out for them at birth. I am referring to the children of survivors, and especially those writers who bring equal measures of moral passion and unstinting craft to a subject that often perplexed their literary elders into silence. Melvin Jules Bukiet is a case in point. He came to wide attention with Stories of an Imaginary Childhood (1992), a collection set in Proszowice, Poland, about Jews blissfully unaware of the impending catastrophe. Bukiet's unnamed narrator (he may be Bukiet's father, a source for many of the stories; Bukiet himself; or, more probably, a combination of the two) introduces himself in a language that seems at once altogether fresh and hauntingly familiar: "Show me a Jewish home without a prodigy and I'll show you an orphanage."

What separates the children of survivors from the survivors themselves is that the work of the former is significantly darker than that of their literary progenitors. The older writer, at least, could recollect the world before the cataclysm. For the second generation, however, there is only After, a word that shivers even as it perplexes--and that figures significantly as the title of Bukiet's recently published novel. As he puts it, in an expression of the new sensibility in perhaps its purest form, "In the beginning was Auschwitz." Yet, Bukiet does not write about the Holocaust directly. There are no scenes of selection, no gas chambers, no mass graves. Instead, his fiction explores the long shadow of the Shoah. After (St. Martin's Press) opens at the moment the camps are liberated and follows a group of survivors as they scheme their way through a destroyed, thoroughly chaotic landscape. Bukiet allows his characters the full range of humanity, from the noble to the base, and in the process his vision will surely offend those who have wrapped the subject in such veils of piety that only sanitized portrayals are acceptable.

After drives home its point by assaulting our sense of the tasteful, challenging the notion that decorum could be the same thing "After" as is had been before.

Allegra Goodman

Allegra Goodman's stories explore the intersections between Judaism and modernity. She concentrates primarily on the Jewish American family, although in ways that make it clear that the Zeitgeist of the 1990s has given the fabled institution some curious, often satiric, spins. With deep roots in the community of observant Jews, the edge of her judgments may be tempered, but that does not mean her satiric eye blinks in the face of hypocrisy.

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Sanford Pinsker is an emeritus professor of English at Franklin and Marshall College. He writes widely about Jewish literature and culture, and in recent years has been a judge for the Edward Lewis Wallant Prize, the Reform Judaism Prize, and the National Jewish Book Award.