Hand-Dry­ing in Amer­i­ca: And Oth­er Stories

  • Review
By – February 19, 2013

Ben Katchor is a car­toon­ist whose first col­lec­tion, Julius Kni­pl, Real Estate Pho­tog­ra­ph­er, was instant­ly (and deserved­ly) inau­gu­rat­ed into the ranks of Great Con­tem­po­rary Jew­ish Nov­el­ists: Nicole Krauss, Dara Horn, Michael Chabon, even though his work resem­bled (gasp!) a com­ic book. His sen­si­bil­i­ty, on the oth­er hand, is much more that of Bel­low and Mala­mud: His one-page sto­ries are most­ly about old Jew­ish men caught in a tide of urban gen­tri­fi­ca­tion and archi­tec­tur­al upheaval, vin­tage por­traits of Low­er East Side fetishiza­tion. His char­ac­ters are author­i­ta­tive and para­noid, nar­rat­ing the strip with great knowl­edge about the inner work­ings of com­mon objects (door­knobs, super­mar­kets, the way that sound trav­els between New York apart­ments), but with a severe spike of par­a­lyz­ing fears — bur­glars, death, the chem­i­cals found in our food.

What stops us from laugh­ing away these char­ac­ters like the most obvi­ous Philip Roth car­i­ca­tures is this strange sur­re­al­i­ty that runs beneath it all — half urban leg­end and half mag­ic, these sto­ries that seem on the one hand far-fetched but on the oth­er are one small step away from being true. An engi­neer fig­ures out how to extract elec­tric­i­ty from the sound of New York sub­ways, and uses it to pow­er malt­ed milk­shake machines in cor­ner stores through­out Brook­lyn. A new lux­u­ry high-rise fea­tures nat­ur­al-water baths with bot­toms that extend deep into the Earth­’s core, extract­ing the fresh­est water that can pos­si­bly exist.

Ben Katchor’s sto­ries don’t fea­ture char­ac­ters so much as ideas. This way of writ­ing could get bor­ing awful­ly quick­ly — except that the ideas he presents are so clever and haunt­ed, it’s hard to imag­ine that ever happening.

Ben Katchor on the Vis­it­ing Scribe

Inter­view: Ben Katchor and Hand-Dry­ing in Amer­i­ca

Twit­ter Book Club

Read the April 29, 2013 #JLit Twit­ter Book Club tran­script here
Matthue Roth’s newest book is My First Kaf­ka: Rodents, Run­aways, and Giant Bugs, a pic­ture book, which will be released in June 2013. His young-adult nov­el Losers was just made a spe­cial selec­tion of the Amer­i­can Library Asso­ci­a­tion. He lives in Brookyn with his fam­i­ly and keeps a secret diary at www​.matthue​.com.

Discussion Questions