The Fourth Cor­ner of the World

Scott Nadel­son
  • Review
By – June 5, 2018

The char­ac­ters of Scott Nadelson’s lat­est short sto­ry col­lec­tion run the gamut of human mis­ery, grab­bing read­ers by the throat even as they grip the heart. They are young and old, priv­i­leged and poor, edu­cat­ed and bare­ly lit­er­ate. Whether new­ly dis­persed from shtetls or assim­i­lat­ed sec­ond- or third-gen­er­a­tion Amer­i­cans, these men and women embody the Jew­ish­ness of their times: some flee­ing nine­teenth-cen­tu­ry pogroms, oth­ers reel­ing from the Holo­caust, a few work­ing mod­ern-day jobs. What­ev­er their era and cir­cum­stances, few are com­fort­able in their skin, their choic­es, or the tra­jec­to­ry of their lives.

Ques­tions of fate and freewill form a sub­text through­out the wide-rang­ing sto­ries. In Son of a Star, Son of a Liar,” 19-year-old Shmuel Zalk­ing is sent to Paris in 1921 to assas­si­nate the pogromist Dovzhenko. Pre­vent­ed from com­plet­ing his assign­ment by a bout of typhus, he ulti­mate­ly heads to Amer­i­ca, freed from time, released from what was into what will be.” The pro­tag­o­nist of A Hole in Every­thing” seems far from would-be assas­sin Shmuel, but teenage Nicole also views her sit­u­a­tion — in this case, black­mail­ing the moth­er of a young man she has had sex with — as a com­bi­na­tion of fate and choice. Once she has cho­sen a path, she can’t veer from it: You can only go back so far. Things that are hap­pen­ing are happening.”

Jew­ish sig­ni­fiers thread the sto­ries, in casu­al ref­er­ences to a Star of David neck­lace, Hil­lel Shab­bat din­ners, or bar mitz­vah mon­ey giv­en to a sib­ling. Oth­er ref­er­ences are broad­er and often fun­ny, as when a char­ac­ter in Tem­po­rary Sal­va­tion,” employed as a reporter at a local Jew­ish paper, con­fides, I began to tire of writ­ing fea­tures about vis­it­ing Israeli dance troupes and exhi­bi­tions of stu­dent work at the Port­land Jew­ish Acad­e­my.” A reck­less teen in A Hole in Every­thing” gets a tat­too and imag­ines her par­ents’ ire: “[T]hey’ll flip, she knows: her moth­er shout­ing about ink poi­son­ing, her father threat­en­ing to trans­fer her to the Solomon Schechter school in West Orange.”

The Jew­ish ref­er­ences can also be stag­ger­ing­ly blunt, as when the pro­tag­o­nist in A Warm Breath” recalls meet­ing a young Ger­man woman at a hos­tel in Prague and think­ing, you, my Aryan friend, are going to fuck a Jew­ish boy before we’re through.” The sen­ti­ment is all the more shock­ing because these sto­ries are gen­er­al­ly sub­tle in the telling. This one in par­tic­u­lar — arguably the best of the bunch — deft­ly explores the guilt and con­flict­ing emo­tions of sor­row and joy as a young father mourns his best friend’s death while mar­veling at the mir­a­cle of his baby daughter’s birth.

Belea­guered by the bur­den of nav­i­gat­ing an end­less­ly com­plex and often cru­el world — one in which they them­selves can be cru­el — the char­ac­ters in Fourth Cor­ner suf­fer for it. So do the read­ers of these sto­ries, in the best way pos­si­ble, as Nadelson’s bril­liant writ­ing immers­es them in the worlds he cre­ates, from the streets of Kiev in the 1880s, to the gar­den of a con­tem­po­rary sub­ur­ban Ore­gon home, to post-war Helsin­ki, and every­where in between.

Amy Spun­gen, a free­lance edi­tor and writer, has a BS in jour­nal­ism from Vir­ginia Com­mon­wealth Uni­ver­si­ty and an MA in Eng­lish from North­west­ern Uni­ver­si­ty. She lives near Chica­go in High­land Park, Illinois.

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