It’s hard to imagine what further secrets might be lurking in the recesses of Shalom Auslander’s personal psychic basement. In his just-published first novel, Hope: A Tragedy, Auslander, who will read from the book at 6 p.m. Saturday, February 18 at Oriole9, reveals a sensibility cringing under the weight of a morass of dark, unreasoned, uncontrollable fears. A thinly disguised version of himself, Solomon Kugel, Auslander’s main character, fears everything from the Holocaust and an arsonist to a vengeful deity determined to take the lives of his wife and child. If this sounds gruesome and depressing, rest assured, it’s quite the opposite. As Auslander writes at the very start of Hope: A Tragedy: “It’s funny…You buy a handgun — for protection, you say — and drop dead that night from a heart attack. You put locks on your doors. You put bars on your windows. You put gates around your house. The doctor phones: It’s cancer, he says…It’s funny.”
Published in January, following Foreskin’s Lament, his widely-acclaimed 2007 memoir, Hope: A Tragedy serves up Auslander’s particular blend of darkness and humor through the story of a family that moves into a house in upstate New York only to discover that Anne Frank, who has survived the Holocaust, is secretly holed up in the attic trying to write her first novel. Laced with a series of bits reminiscent of Groucho Marx or Lennie Bruce, Hope: A Tragedy wrestles with the same issues of transgression, fatherhood, guilt and the relationship to God that infuse Auslander’s memoir and 2006 short story collection Beware of God.
Born in 1970, Auslander grew up in a strict orthodox Jewish environment in Monsey, New York in what he describes as a highly dysfunctional family. As he recounted on NPR’s This American Life radio program: “I had a brother who died when he was three. His name was Jeffy. I hated him. Jeffy died before I was born, and every dysfunction in my considerably dysfunctional family was blamed on his death, even though he died many years before the dysfunctions actually began…By the time I was nine years old, my father drank heavily and physically abused my older brother. My brother hated my mother and resented me. My mother loathed my brother and doted on me and my sister. My sister hated my brother and defended my mother. I envied my brother and pitied my mother. And my father hated us all.”
During an interview at Bread Alone, Auslander recounted how his flight from his family and oppressive community brought him and his wife to Woodstock for the first time during the early 90’s. He had been working as a copy writer at a small New York ad agency when his boss offered use of his rented Woodstock home over the Christmas vacation in return for dog-sitting. Taken by the town and its bucolic surroundings, Auslander and his wife purchased a home of their own here a few years later.
Originally intended as a weekend place, the Woodstock house — “nice, but mouse-ridden and drafty and all the usual Woodstock design kind of stuff,” he says — gradually evolved into their full-time home in part because of Duke, one of their own two dogs. The more time Duke spent in Woodstock, the less inclined he became to relieve himself in the urban environment of New York City. Gradually, for Duke’s sake, the Woodstock weekends were extended until the mouse-ridden home became their full-time residence.
At the same time, Auslander was beginning to devote more of his time and attention to ‘more serious’ writing. “I hated doing it [ad copywriting],” he says. “Nothing I did ever actually got produced. I had a good reputation for doing interesting stuff. The problem is that corporations don’t like interesting stuff so my role tended to be to come up with stuff that we’ll show the client as creative even though they’re gonna buy lots of smiling people running around along the beach. I didn’t have any kind of ethical quandaries because I wasn’t really selling anything to anybody.
“It was fun for a little while [but] I felt the need to say what I had to say…My deal with these agencies was ‘pay me less than you were going to and I’ll come in less than you were wanting me to.’ So in much the same way I phased out of the city and came up here, I phased out of that job to do my own stuff.”
Auslander, whose entire formal non-Yeshiva education consisted of two weeks at Queens College in New York, says he came to writing largely because he had always been an avid reader. “I was in a very unhappy house in a very restricted community and the one saving grace was that in that world, books and reading are revered…It was my only window into the outside world,” he says. The 24-hour Sabbath starting at sundown on Friday night, when “you can’t do anything,” provided prime reading time. As a boy, Auslander would visit the local library on Wednesdays to stock up with “a mountain of books” that he would devour by Saturday night.
His interest in fiction was sparked by books he found at Manhattan’s landmark Gotham Book Mart, near the diamond district. Auslander recounts that as a teenager, he would cut classes at the Metropolitan Talmudical Academy High School at 181st Street and Amsterdam Ave. and take the subway to Times Square to buy pornography with money he had stolen from his father the night before. Rather than return uptown to catch the school bus back to Monsey, he would take a special bus for the orthodox Jews who worked in the diamond district. The bus stop happened to be in front of The Gotham Book Mart, so if the young Auslander had any money left and any space remaining in his porn-loaded book bag, he could browse through the bookstore as he waited for the bus.
I Would Have Saved Them If I Could, a collection of short stories by Leonard Michaels, had enormous impact on Auslander, as did works by Kafka and Samuel Becket recommended to him by Gotham staff. “Those guys were all to me hilariously funny. I had no clue until later, when I read what people wrote about them, that this was literature. It’s two guys waiting for Godot who never shows up, it’s fucking hilarious, how is that serious?” he asks. “At the same time I was listening to Lennie Bruce and Bill Hicks and I saw a very direct connection. All these guys seemed to be bomb-throwers, laughing at the darkness. And I thought that’s how I’ve always gotten through it and that’s what I want to do.”
It seems to make little difference to Auslander whether he’s writing memoir or fiction. It’s all about “screaming when you’re burning,” he says, borrowing the phrase from Charles Bukowski. “That’s what writing is,” he says. “You can do it in a purely angry way, but no one’s gonna want to listen, or you can scream and laugh. Laughter in many ways is the best scream of all.”
Take Sol Kugel’s mother in Hope: A Tragedy. Noting that his own mother was obsessed with the Holocaust, he explains gleefully how he screams with laughter at her Holocaust fixation in the novel. “She becomes a woman who claims to have been in it even though she wasn’t and that’s just so much fun, so cathartic. It’s better than sex. It’s the biggest, juiciest apple on that tree of knowledge and you just take a huge fucking bite out of it.”
Now, a movie project has Auslander writing a screenplay for Foreskin’s Lament. He’s also working on a planned cable TV series, on Showtime, based on his days as an ad copy writer. Though those involved in these projects seemed to expect him to hop the first flight to L.A., he insists that he’s staying in Woodstock. And that he’ll maintain published writing as his “core.”
“There’s a lot more in the basement no one knows about. It’s like the subways below Grand Central with eight floors going down. I know what’s really down there. I come from a place of secrecy and shame. In terms of my family we were a dysfunctional family in a community that never admits its dysfunction. The more light I shed on those things the better I feel. I fully intend to open up all eight floors,” he says. “I can’t write a story about a spy in Berlin. There’s nothing in it for me. I can’t write anything unless there’s a live third rail and I’m standing on it.”++
Shalom Auslander will read from his new novel, Hope: A Tragedy, as part of The Golden Notebook’s ongoing series of events at 6 p.m.Saturday, February 18, at Oriole 9, 17 Tinker Street in Woodstock.