Underground Reading: HebrewPunk by Lavie Tidhar
Monday, May 02, 2011
HebrewPunk (2007) is a collection of four short stories by Lavie Tidhar. The stories all feature a cast of supernatural Jewish heroes - drawn from Hebrew mythology and literary lore. Lest that specialist focus sound dry and un-entertaining, don't let the concept scare you: HebrewPunk is a fun and (mostly) accessible collection of catchy alternate history.
The volume's opening story, "The Heist", sets up the collection nicely. First published in 2005, "The Heist" is a streamlined, occult version of Ocean's Eleven. Some folks need to break into a highly-defended blood bank, so they call "The Rabbi" - the ultimate macher (Yiddish for "fixer" or "schemer"). The Rabbi makes a few calls of his own - Jimmy the Rat (Vampire), The Tzaddik (formerly one of the 36 Tzaddikim that preserve the order of the world) and Goldie (his pet golem). This foursome needs to pull off the theft of the century - breaking through the bank's defenses (natural and supernatural) and making off with the prize.
Of the four stories, "The Heist" is the most fun and, arguably, the least cerebral - mostly because the style Mr. Tidhar has chosen to pastiche is that of the accessible, action-packed adventure. The four heroes do their thing, patter some patter and charismatically ooze their way towards the conclusion.
The second story, "Transylvania Mission", was first published in 2004 and stars Jimmy the Rat. Jimmy is hiding deep in the hills of Romania during World War 2. He's allied with a group of local partisans, who carefully do their best to ignore Jimmy's vampirism. They all have worse things to worry about. In this story, the fiendish Doctor Mengele brings some of his elite Werewolf Corps to the region in the hopes of raising the spirit of Dracula. Jimmy (despite being a vampire himself) thinks that Mengele is a madman, but the opportunity to foil the Nazis and poke a few holes in the sadistic villian is simply too rich to pass up.
Again, Mr. Tidhar adopts a different genre and style. "Transylvania Mission" is much grimmer and more direct than "The Heist" - a dark tale of dark doings told in the straightforward, masculine fashion of war stories. It features hard-bitten warriors doing their best against insurmountable odds. Good war stories are often about men becoming "monsters" for their cause (or just to survive). In the case of "Transylvania Mission", this is taken literally. I've always found the use of Nazis in genre to be a touchy one - there's always a danger that the real horror gets eclipsed by making it supernatural. Doctor Mengele, historical figure, is worse than anything dreamed up in fiction and I don't want to see him overshadowed or made un-menacing by Warlock Mengele, cackling priest of Cthulhu. There's no hard and fast rule on when genre Nazis are "appropriate", but if there were, it would be more a matter of tone than subject. Fortunately, Mr. Tidhar keeps Mengele at arm's length. Despite the inherently goofy proposition of Mengele raising the dead, the language of the story prevents the reader from finding any part of it too silly. It is a grim story, grimly told, and Mr. Tidhar weaves real and imaginary horrors together to ensure that the real evil is taken as seriously as possible.
The third tale, "Uganda", finds the versatile Mr. Tidhar donning a third hat. First published in this volume, the story revisits The Rabbi and his work with the 1903 "Uganda Proposal". In real life, Theodor Herzl had provisional agreement from the British government to create a Jewish state in East Africa. The ultimate aim of Zionism would continue to be a state in Israel, but given the movement's lack of success (and the wave of European anti-Semitism), Herzl was exploring alternatives. In Mr. Tidhar's version of events, "Uganda", Herzl finds The Rabbi and asks him to follow (discreetly) the expedition that would be exploring Africa and judging whether or not it would be a feasible Jewish homeland. The Rabbi agrees and winds up going much further than he ever expected.
The Rabbi finds a powerful and spiritual land, with its own tribes (lost and found). He also stumbled upon visions of possible futures - containing potential for both greatness and disaster. The story is Mr. Tidhar's own expedition into the realm of magical realism, a serious and slightly-ponderous style that allows him to mix past, present and possibility. Of the four stories in the volume, "Uganda" is probably the least enjoyable of the lot. It has a lot to say (although both Mr. Tidhar and his protagonist avoid being blatant with their own feelings) and it wraps its message inside h the collection's most complex narrative structure. "Uganda" is also the most ambitious in terms of being an alternate history, as it is packed with references to characters both real and mythological.
The final story, "The Dope Fiend" (2005) is the very noir tale of the Tzaddik and his battle against a London drug ring. Like the previous story, "The Dope Fiend" is set in a very narrow historical period and packed with specific references - in this case, the early 1920s and the death of West End actress, Billie Carleton. Edgar Manning, Carleton's boyfriend and a jazz drummer from Jamaica, is freshly out of prison and looking to solve the mystery of her death. The Tzaddik gets involved when he learns that a supernatural power may be behind the scenes - one that even scares the 36 current Tzaddikim. "The Dope Fiend" combines the noir tropes of love, betrayal and, of course, a femme fatale. It also skillfully mixes the mythology of three cultures: Jamaican, Chinese and Jewish. The result is a story that's probably the best of this collection - a unique mixture of human history, occult lore and stylish prose.
Mr. Tidhar writes in very different voices throughout HebrewPunk and despite the collection's narrow-sounding title, he covers a broad range of topics as well. This results in a "something for everyone" sort of collection: the comic heist, the grim war story, a noir thriller and some literary mysticism. The flip-side is that, however much I can respect his ambition and his versatility, not all of the stories are "for me". "Uganda" impressed me but did not entertain me. "The Heist" was the reverse - a great deal of fun without having much depth.
The real gem of the collection was "The Dope Fiend". This story allowed Mr. Tidhar to show off his impressive historical and occult knowledge in a compelling, empathetic story. It is gritty, complex and layered with mythology, but ultimately, it is a very human and personal tale. If the other stories were built around historical moments or clever plots, "The Dope Fiend" was built around compelling characters. Of all the talent on display in this highly recommended collection, this is the story that I will return to again and again.