Firstly, I feel that I must admit that I finished this book in one sitting. At a positively wrist-breaking and cumbrous 196 pages, each story is profoundly brief but enlightening, with little trinkets of dark humor and self-deprecation folded into every tale.
Keret has long been considered a literary hero in his native Israel, an author who has successfully and inimitably captured the milieu of his life and times. This collection, garnered from a long list of best-sellers, is his first to be published in the United States and acts as an introduction of sorts—almost like meeting a second or third cousin whose name you’ve only heard in passing, but find quickly that you get on quite well. Casual readers will probably be most familiar with Keret’s short story “Kneller’s Happy Campers”—included in this edition—which was adapted into the 2006 feature film “Wristcutters: A Love Story”, wherein three travelers journey through a mundane afterlife on a quest to (literally) find salvation.
Salvation, it seems, is a constant throughout each short story. Keret is a writer who specializes in the grey interim between the moral and ethical vagaries of everyday life, and his heroes—who tend more often than not to be strange and alien men—all spring from the same primeval well of loneliness. They keep their head down, Kafkaesque in their sullen otherness, but retain a reserved capacity to rebel against that internal thing which makes them both isolated and self-contained. In short, they feel more than their world will allow, and love—the act of love—is a choice made as a declaration of rebellion.
The titular first story opens the collection with an expression of compassion among life’s everyday banalities. It is here that Keret’s magic manifests in his ability to turn an everyday event into a tale of human sincerity, somehow optimistic despite the setting. A city bus driver, unapologetic in his ‘the bus stops for no one’ ideology, and one of the riders, a man who feels abandoned by happiness, converge in one moment of kindness wherein the driver decides to wait. As the bus drives off, its driver “gave Eddie a sad wink, which somehow made the whole thing almost bearable”. It is this action, a choice to be kind instead of succumbing to hardheartedness, that begins the anthology on a note of compassion.
As Keret himself says: “Everything in life is just luck”. Interwoven with these messages of love are undercurrents of chance; it is just as random to be kind as it is to be cruel, and the alchemy of kindness knows no logic. The same boy in “Siren” is warned by a girl he likes of an impending ambush—one that she directs him straight into. An Arab soldier and an Israeli retreat to prejudices in “Cocked and Locked”, saved only from an irreparable violent act by a jammed rifle. A slipped disk spares a boy from becoming a member of the gymnastic “Flying Santinis”, although the ringleader admits to him that he could have cheated, if he’d decided to. Chance, chaotic and unpredictable, is just as much at play in Keret’s work as love, the two often operating side by side, as unexpected as they are illuminating.
Perhaps the greatest draw that Keret has for new readers is his versatility. Fans of absurdism and existentialism will rejoice—Camus’ “The Stranger” is reflected midway through the collection in Keret’s “Missing Kissinger”, wherein a man with mother issues debates killing her to appease his demanding girlfriend. For those who enjoy exercises in magical realism, tones of Gabriel Garcia-Marquez and Bruno Schultz’s “Street of Crocodiles” are superimposed in every story, where the narrators wander dream-like through their surroundings. Readers who enjoy shorter works will burn through each chapter, with no story barring “Kneller’s Happy Campers”—a novella in itself—being longer than eight pages.
These stories, whether about playground bullies or the abhorrently apathetic afterlife, all share common denominators: those of love, of chance, of the surreal feeling of caring about something. The boy on the playground in “Siren” refuses to be labelled a coward for revealing that his school’s naval commando all-star stole a bike, telling him that he has no honor. An assassin in the subsequent “Good Intentions” refuses to carry out a hit out on a priest, haunted by the man’s dedication to his own altruistic martyrdom. The main character of “Kneller’s Happy Campers” resigns himself to an unending afterlife, content with the salvation of a friend who managed to escape.
Rebellion, ultimately, becomes redemption. The act of caring, of refusing to participate in an apathetic world, is what saves these characters, trapped as they are in their uncaring and sterile worlds. Keret, although a recent discovery for some, displays a message that will resonate with many. It may be random, it may be circumstantial, and it may not mean a lot when it does rear its head in its ever-diverse and miniscule ways, but love ultimately is what lies within us all, ready to be summoned when we choose it to be. Love is a choice, our choice, but one that has a great and mystifying power to absolve the bonds that separate us. It allows us to share ourselves and who we are with each other, and whenever these small miracles appear, they must be cherished, lest they disappear. Ultimately, it is what we make of it and what we decide to do with it that matters.
Keret, Etgar. The Bus Driver Who Wanted to be God: And Other Stories. Riverhead Press (October 13, 2015). 208 p.