Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Old Fashioned Religious Satire With an Edge

Review of "Beware of God: Stories" by Shalom Auslander

This book of short stories is filled with hilarity of a uniquely dark, absurd and blasphemous variety. Shalom Auslander pokes fun at the ridiculous religious environment of the 21st Century, and while sparing no self-appointed prophet or vengeful deity from ridicule, Auslander manages to keep his stories funny and insightful. I couldn't put this down, and ended up finishing it in a day.

Each story is so unique, but this bizarre compilation somehow works as a whole, as each story deals with some sort of thematic commonality: God, sin, death, the afterlife, the relationship between humans and animals. And a warning to those easily offended or holders of religious sensitivity: Some of this stuff is really edgy. In this day and age, it’s hard to shock a reader, but Auslander shocks even me with some of his stories. Sex, masturbation, the Holocaust, it’s all in there. And it’s all somehow funny. Auslander’s prose occasionally reminds me of Terry Pratchett. His literary sci-fi-humor reminds me of some of Kurt Vonnegut’s work. Coming from one of the biggest Vonnegut fans ever, that’s really saying something. But Auslander has an incisive wit and a sense of pop-culture awareness that is purely his own.

The first story is one of the best. It’s about an aging Jewish couple obsessed with the afterlife to the point that they can't function in real life. Bitter, stuck in a sexless marriage, they end up trying to get each other to sin. They both want the other to end up in a deeper level of hell. She feeds him bacon and nonkosher wines. The wife drives herself crazy trying to figure out how to get her husband to sin without getting herself sent to hell in the process. This is just one example of the absurdity of the whole scheme: “Of course, if the total punishment of causing a sin is a sin of causation plus the sin of the sin that is being caused, then shouldn't causing a commandment to be fulfilled result in both the reward for the commandment of causing a positive commandment to be fulfilled plus the reward for the positive commandment she was causing to be fulfilled.” The mathematics of sin and punishment are absurd, and Auslander shows that beautifully through this chaotic short story.

In another story a man scheduled for death escapes because his Volvo has good side impact safety features. God, Lucifer and Death are all in it together to kill him, but they don’t take the car’s safety features into account, and therefore botch the operation. The man becomes convinced God is after him and tries to go about his days hiding. The rabbi’s advice for this man who believes God is after him? “Do what He says any nobody gets hurt.” As God devises more ways to kill man, man just comes up with a way of slowing down God’s death-dealing. Cancer patients now have chemotherapy. Cars now don’t explode as easily. It’s an arms race between God and man, and it makes for a very funny story.

The awkwardly hilarious story “Holocaust Tips for Kids” features one child writing down all the advice he can think of on how to fight back against Nazis when (not if) another Holocaust happens. These tips include things like pretending to be dead in firing lines, to building bombs out of tennis balls and match heads and throwing salt packets in Nazis’ eyes. While it may be a bit sadistic, Auslander has written a hilarious story about a child’s crazy Nazi-killing fantasies.

Then there’s a story told from the perspective of two hamsters: one religious and one skeptic. I will say this is probably the first piece of fiction I’ve read written from a hamster’s perspective. And it’s just as funny and ridiculous as it sounds. The most hilarious part is when one hamster tries to defend the writer James Patterson to the other hamster, who is a literary snob and completely baffled that his friend enjoys reading that crap.

A man goes to Israel and finds the oldest version of the Old Testament ever recorded. Only thing is that it is prefaced by the following statement: “The following is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to persons living or dead is entirely coincidental.” But no one wants to hear about this new, old, Old Testament because they’re all so engrained in their own religious structures. “Whatever they believed was unbelievably right, and whatever everybody else believed was unbelievably wrong. Piety and passion were in great supply… Arms dealers had never been busier.”

There’s also a story of religious war told through the characters from Schultz’ Peanuts: (Charlie Brown, Lucy, Snoopy, Schroeder) that made me laugh aloud while I was reading it on the train.

In an era of political correctness when extremist religious beliefs frequently pass by without question or critical doubt, this book is a breath of fresh air. No doubt, many people will consider it offensive blasphemy. But even if you’re religious, as long as you have a sense of humor, this book will crack you up. And, more importantly, it will make you think.

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