According to Shalom Auslander, God is a four-letter word. Or, to be more exact, he's taken to referring to the holiest of holies as "you fucking fuck." (OK, that's 14 letters.) And really, who can blame him? God is after his unborn son, and may very well slay his wife, Orli, and their friends as well just for kicks. Estranged from his parents and still smarting from a childhood trapped in a strict Orthodox Jewish yeshiva, the author is writing a vengeful, unpublished collection of stories about the Lord, and he knows there will be hell to pay when he finishes. "I believe in a personal God," Auslander explains. "Everything I do, he takes personally."
Auslander's new memoir, Foreskin's Lament (Riverhead Books, 324 pages, $24.95), reveals both the paranoia of both the devout and those desperately trying not to believe. The book hopscotches between his repressed, fear-scented childhood in Monsey, N.Y., and his present—less repressed, but no less fearful—life as a thirtysomething writer in New York. His socially strict formative years are a far cry from that of the average American—after all, only a tiny percent of America's 7 million Jews identify as Orthodox. But his sharp, gallows-humor prose evokes universal sentiments of bitterness and—most richly drawn—guilt.
At age 8 he launches a campaign of cussing, masturbating and eating meat with milk in order to provoke God into killing his drunken father. At age 35, he attributes the increase of attacks on Israeli civilians to the progress he's making on his memoir. Choosing between rooting for the Rangers to win a TV hockey match and observing the Sabbath leads to his ultimate break from Judaism.
Listeners of Chicago Public Radio's This American Life have heard some of these stories before. Auslander's slow, deadpan voice has been featured on the show a half dozen times since 2004.
Still, the stories feel fresh, or at least like fresh wounds. Each chapter effectively illustrates another lesson in Auslander's personal Holy Book, whether it's the price one pays for eating Slim Jims or daydreaming about acts of sodomy on the subway.
The stories never stray far from the sacred-cow-slaying themes of his 2005 short-story collection, Beware of God , or the tone of bemused horror—at himself and everyday life—that infuses his magazine writing. But the grinding first-person narrative renders some of them that much more horrible.
His constant seesaw between rebellion and guilt gets repetitive, but at this point, let me confess: I am incapable of reading more than a few pages of Auslander's memoir without breaking out into a cold sweat. Not because I'm Jewish, or because I've sinned more than the average agnostic Portlander. It's because he nails that nagging feeling that life, as we know it, cannot possibly come without dire tradeoffs. He understands that a big part of living is the excruciating task of waiting for it all to go wrong—with or without God's help.