The Nimrod Flipout
What should we expect from Etgar Keret, reputedly the hippest young writer in Israel? Despite writing in Hebrew, very few of Keret’s stories deal with politics and religion. “Surprise Egg,” from his latest collection, The Nimrod Flipout, may open with a suicide bombing, but it’s mostly concerned with the pathologist who decides not to tell a victim’s husband that his wife was so riddled with cancer that her death was brought forward by only a few days. Most of the 30 stories here deal with the small moments of life: hanging out with friends, watching your girlfriend sleep, arguing with parents, getting a new dog.
The Nimrod Flipout is a volume of hip, cynical tales, rendered in a cool, remote tone. It’s not too long, though, before Keret’s desperate and ridiculous characters, dancing in the face of their existential despair, inspire warmth. Keret’s prose is assured, intelligent, funny, and oddly touching.
It’s pretty easy to suspect that for Keret cynicism is a romantic pose. With his defiantly apolitical stories of pooches, pals, and peculiarity he feels unable to avoid a kind of beleaguered optimism. In “Bottle” an aggrieved barroom magician traps one of two drinking buddies in a beer bottle, only to release him later the same night—and even shows his victim how to do the trick. “Only 9.99 (Inc. Tax and Postage)” imagines a world in which far-fetched claims in ads are true, if only people send off for the little booklet. Some of the stories are so brief and quirky as to be almost Richard Brautigan-esque—vignettes, prose poems, and jokes more than complete narratives. But there are plenty of those, too.
The collection’s opener, “Fatso,” is the surprisingly affecting tale of a young couple deeply in love. Every night at moonrise the protagonist’s beautiful girlfriend turns into a fat, hairy guy who likes sports and bars and wears a pinkie ring. By day or by night, the two are inseparable and loving every minute of it.
Not all is sunshine and roses in Keret’s garden. Told in his signature affectless style, “Actually, I’ve Had Some Phenomenal Hard-ons Lately” is a slight and unpleasant tale, less striking than its title. The squalid humor of “The Tits on an Eighteen-Year-Old” relies on a caricatured taxi driver’s ranting, leavened by a crumb of emotional rawness in the final lines. “Shooting Tuvia,” an initially cute story about a boy and his deeply hostile dog, gets progressively grimmer with each attempt his family makes to rid itself of the beast. The final twist feels hopeful at first blush, but may actually be the most depressing moment of the collection. “Teddy Trunk,” on the other hand, poignantly reveals the truth behind a local big shot’s nickname.
The most compelling of the stories is also one of the simplest. “A Visit to the Cockpit” is the deftly rendered internal monologue of a young woman returning from New York with her father. On the plane back to Israel she reminisces about the breakup of her affair, after discovering her lover’s infidelity. Mostly, though, it’s an evocation of personal isolation, and surprisingly emotive. The satisfyingly melancholic reflection has an emotional spike, lingers longer than its companion pieces, and will bear many rereadings.