Book editor Seventh Seltzer needs to find a memoir he can publish. The manuscripts all seem awfully narrow, though. He’s just read one, for instance, by a Jewish-Fourth-Wave-Lesbian-Socialist-Pro-Immigration-Anti-Vax-Latinx-American. Those identity-centered stories seem to be popping up everywhere — which exasperates Seventh, for whom a narrow tribal identity has always been “a prison he longed to escape.”
And no wonder. His own mother is a fierce defender of her own ethnic group and despises practically everybody else. That group is the Cannibal-Americans. They’re not just any people who eat people (a practice Auslander describes in graphic detail), but a persecuted minority that came from the Old Country with traditions and rituals they hold dear. Assimilation is her enemy, and she is determined until her dying breath not to break the chain of tradition.
Most of her adult children, including Seventh, have long since rebelled and fled. They come home as she nears the end of her life out of sentiment and duty, with an interest in their inheritance. When the end comes, they have to decide what to do about her deathbed wish which gives this novel its title.
Shalom Auslander’s social satire can be very funny, and his jabs at the New York Times, the publishing industry, and pop culture are especially entertaining. Yet anger is never far below the surface. The dialogue often sounds like a public debate. A few samples:
“I love this notion that defending your people is somehow noble. Tribal superiority is easy; we’re wired for it.”
“Everything we know about the mind points to similarities, not differences. Gay, straight, black, white, Western, Eastern, ancient, modern — our emotional wiring is the same.”
Auslander himself left an insular community for a more cosmopolitan life. He found an America where tribalism and nationalism are widespread, and where preserving group customs is more appreciated than are the similarities among all human beings. That might explain the fierceness of his satire.
This novel, a daring thought experiment, has panache and imagination to spare. How much you enjoy it may depend on how much appetite you have for the particular dishes it serves.