Dog licks man

Etgar Keret’s sane surrealism
By CHARLES TAYLOR  |  June 20, 2006

WEIRD WONDER:   Keret is a deadpan surrealist chronicling the intrusion of the bizarre into the quotidian.
Imagine my embarrassment. I’m on a crowded subway car, people on either side of me, reading Etgar Keret’s new collection of short stories, The Nimrod Flipout. Finishing one story, I turn the page and there, in big block letters, is the next story’s title: “ACTUALLY, I’VE HAD SOME PHENOMENAL HARD-ONS LATELY.” I’m a sophisticated reader, and I try to emulate the black women I see on the subway, blithely reading Zane’s descriptions of sex sororities and amazingly endowed pick-ups. So I settle down to the tale at hand, eager to finish and turn the page, and what do I get? The narrator describing how he awakens to find his beloved terrier licking his morning erection. All I can say is, thank God I was home by the time I got to “THE TITS ON AN EIGHTEEN-YEAR-OLD.”

The salacious is a great attention getter. (You’ve read this far, haven’t you?) But man-dog affection, and the piggish cab driver who keeps a running commentary on the charms of the young girls on the street, is far less outrageous than what passes for reality in Keret’s stories.

The Israeli author is a deadpan surrealist chronicling the intrusion of the bizarre into the quotidian. And just describing what happens in some of these tales — a man’s girlfriend turns, every night, into a bald potbellied soccer fanatic; devoted parents shrink an inch for every inch their son grows; a booklet advertised in the newspaper teaches humanity the meaning of life for only $9.99; a beloved pet dog keeps coming back from the dead; a beautiful little girl covets the glittering eyes of the grubby, ordinary little boy who’s in love with her — might lead you to expect that Keret’s Twilight-Zone-meets-Looney-Tunes premises are Vonnegut-like disguises for treacly sentimentality. In other words, that he’s not so much strange as cute.

Maybe I should say that I have less patience than anyone I know for the intrusion of the surreal into ostensibly realist fiction. And not everything in The Nimrod Flipout is successful. Some of the stories, no more than tossed-off sketches, aren’t developed. But Keret’s weirdness is never without a recognizable emotional component, and at their best these stories work as elegant metaphors. “Fatso,” about the fellow whose gorgeous girlfriend transforms, Cinderella-like, into a tubby soccer fan, is really about the narrator’s dream of resolving the male-female split by finding all the different sorts of companionship he craves in one partner. “Pride and Joy,” in which parents shrink in inverse proportion to their son’s growth, is an illustration of the parents who live for their kids. Facing the prospect that she and her husband will eventually fade away, the boy’s mother, in one of the great Jewish jokes of all time, says, “Lots of parents are dying to sacrifice everything for their children . . . but not all of them get the chance.” Coo, coo, ca-choo, Mrs. Portnoy.

One of the most affecting tales, “A Good-Looking Couple,” chronicles the course of a one-night stand from the point of view of the man and woman and then from that of the cat, the door, and the television set. Keret transcribes the mind-split experience of impromptu sex, the simultaneous giving into lust and wondering, “What am I doing — and what does it mean?”

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