I first encountered Israeli writer Etgar Keret in a 2006 essay in the New York Times magazine about arriving at a hospital with his wife in labor minutes before the place was flooded with victims of a bombing. “I just hate terror attacks,” said a nurse. “They put a damper on everything.”
A journalist covering the incident recognized Keret and was disappointed to learn that he was there for other reasons. “A reaction from a writer would’ve been good for my article,” the journalist said. “After every attack, I always get the same reactions: ‘Suddenly, I heard a boom’; ‘I don’t know what happened’; ‘Everything was covered in blood.’ How much of that can you take?”
For Keret, the line between funny and sad is no line at all. It’s a territory, a borderland where one does not exist without the other. The 22 stories (or 23 if you count a running e-mail correspondence sandwiched between pieces) in his new collection, “Fly Already,” all exist in this liminal space, accessed from Tel Aviv, Switzerland, Cleveland, Fat Charley’s Diner, an escape room called the Glitch at the Edge of the Galaxy and heaven.
One favorite Keret theme is fatherhood. In the title story, “Fly Already,” the narrator and his son try to stop a man from jumping off a building but are mistaken for a man trying to throw his son off a building. In “To the Moon and Back,” a divorced dad at a candy store with his little boy offers to buy him any one thing in the place. Unfortunately, the kid chooses the cash register, and instead of pointing out that this is impossible, Dad leans in.
The three children in “Dad With Mashed Potatoes” come home to find their father has turned into a white rabbit. Preferring to believe that her husband has walked out on the family, Mom says they have to get rid of him.
Also charming are Keret’s bro-ish metafictional fables, such as “Todd,” which starts and ends with the line, “My friend Todd wants me to write him a story that will help him get girls into bed.”
“Pineapple Crush” is about an underachieving slacker who scores some fantastic weed: “The first hit of the day is like a childhood friend, a first love, a commercial for life.” If only life could live up to its advertising.
Even when the stories move into surrealist settings — an orphanage/cloning center, a windowless cell controlled by an app and a friendly support team — the language remains down-to-earth, funny and cool, Denis Johnson-esque. Translated into English by five people, it suggests that the distance between Hebrew and English is not so great. Heartbreaking, absurdly funny, disturbing and comforting, Keret’s stories bridge worlds.
Marion Winik is the author of “The Baltimore Book of the Dead” and the host of the Weekly Reader podcast. She is on the board of the National Book Critics Circle.
By: Etgar Keret, translated from the Hebrew.
Publisher: Riverhead, 209 pages, $27.