Jewish-American Fiction in the 21st Century

Vibrancy and diversity mark the new crop of novelists and story writers.

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"Look at me," the larky protagonist of Saul Bellow's The Adventures of Augie March (1953) announces, "I'm going everywhere!" And, indeed, Augie did, with a picaresque energy that reminds readers of Huck Finn and with a voice entirely, wonderfully, his own. Bellow's urban Jewish style forced the highfalutin and the street savvy to share floor space (often in a single paragraph), and in the process, made serious writing about American Jews possible.

Ironically enough, Ravelstein, Bellow's last novel, was published in 2000, at the beginning of the 21st century. Bellow himself died five years later, but not before passing the Jewish-American fiction-writing torch.

Granted, my emphasis on new writers in our new century is arbitrary. Writers who established themselves in the 1960s and '70s are still hard at work. One thinks, for example, of Philip Roth (The Plot Against America, 2004) and Cynthia Ozick (Heir to the Glimmering World, 2004). Still, "going everywhere" means very different things to the generation of emerging Jewish-American writers. They are, as they should be, a raucous and diverse bunch, and one can say of them what was once said about the 20th century triumvirate of Bellow, Roth, and Malamud--namely, that their Jewish-Jewish fiction is hard to define but easy to recognize.

"The Russian (Jews) Are Cominng!"

The late Irving Howe once declared that Jewish-American fiction was dying, if not completely dead, because the only story it could tell was how immigrant Jewish sons became fully assimilated Americans. No doubt Howe would have changed his mind had he lived long enough to read the work of Russian émigrés such as Gary Shteyngart, Lara Vapnyar, and David Bezmozgis.

To be strangers in a strange land, exiles wandering the earth, in a word, to be alienated perfectly described the condition of Jews in the modern world. One thinks of Kafka in Prague, of Proust in Paris, and of virtually every New York intellectual who wrote for Partisan Review. But the new crop of Russian-Jewish writers differs from those who never imagined taking six-hour plane rides back to Moscow. The new crop do, and if Gary Shteyngart is to be believed, they do it often--even as they are busily furthering their careers in America. They continue to live, in short, between two worlds, no longer Russian but not yet fully Americanized.

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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.