Whatever the exact figure, the advance proved to be a wise investment given the book's success, which was highly unusual for a short story collection. It was also well deserved, according to Colson Whitehead, the author of John Henry Days (Doubleday, 2001) and Apex Hides the Hurt (Doubleday, 2006). "We'd been playing poker together for about a year when I read For the Relief," Whitehead says, "and I was just blown away. It's always nice when you meet somebody and like them and think, ‘I hope I like their work, too.' The book is so spare and wise and generous. And the stories keep expanding page by page to contain much bigger worlds than you think from the start."
Julie Orringer, the author of How to Breathe Underwater (Knopf, 2003), remembers first seeing those stories years ago, in the mid-1990s, when she and Englander sat across the table from each other at Iowa. "Nathan was only twenty-five," Orringer says, "but the stories were already astonishingly good—he had a voice all his own; a wry, intimate storyteller's voice. His stories were unlike anything else I saw in the workshop, or have seen since."
Orringer remembers how Englander raised difficult questions about Jewish belief and identity, about the challenges of being Jewish in a Christian or a secular society, and about the devastating losses that haunt Jewish history. "I don't describe myself as a Jewish writer," says Englander, who chafes at being pigeonholed. "I write my stories, and they're about people. And I think that whole idea that you have to think of yourself as other is totally artistically destructive."
In fact, the caged-in feeling that permeates For the Relief of Unbearable Urges is something Englander knows well. "I was raised religious and gave it up," he says. "And I think that first book was really about this balance—the religious and the secular, the sacred and the profane, or however you want to break it down. It was about boundaries and balancing against these two worlds and where they come up against each other."
Fiction writer Colum McCann (Zoli, Random House, 2007), who shared an office with Englander at the New York Public Library's Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers from 2004 to 2005, explains the stories' appeal this way. "They're big and expansive and they dare," he says. "They're not small and mannered and housebroken like a lot of fiction is these days. He's aware of the cultural importance of the work, but he's not beating his chest. And there's a mythic quality, so they're not necessarily stories only for today. They're stories that seem to go backward and forward in time simultaneously. They seem to me brave and alive."
Nathan Englander grew up in "hypersuburban" Long Island, in a small place called West Hempstead, a few towns over from the "Long Island Lolita," Amy Fisher. But unlike her community, his was insular—he interacted solely with other (modern) Orthodox Jews. He went to yeshiva. He hung around and watched TV. And on the Sabbath, when the TV wasn't allowed, he read. Sometimes he would just sit and read a whole book, usually those assigned for English class: Camus's The Plague, Conrad's Heart of Darkness, Orwell's 1984. And as he read more and more, the more he fell in love with books and stories and the possibilities in them. "I was in a closed world," Englander says, "and I was suffocating in that world, and literature saved me—in the most pure form, where I had these ideas and thoughts and I found them in books. I really believe in the power of literature. I think there is no higher art form. I've always thought writing is the supreme form."
In 1989, during his junior year in college at Binghamton University, where he studied literature and Judaic studies, Englander went abroad to Israel. It was there he first heard a story he couldn't let go of. The more he thought about it, the more he wanted to complete it, to give it a proper ending. It was an account from Russia about Stalin executing twenty-six Jewish writers on the same day. To someone like Englander who loved books so much, the executions struck him as particularly brutal. Not only did the writers die, but all their stories died with them.
"These guys had the greatest story of their lives to tell and now it was gone," Englander says. "I thought someone should give them a story."
The idea stayed with him for a few years. He thought about it when he came home to New York. He thought about it while he put in hours managing a photography studio. He thought about it when he went back to Jerusalem in 1992 to pursue various summer photography projects. And it was there, sitting alone in his room with this story growing in his mind, that he realized photography wasn't his path.