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.