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The Ascent of Eli Israel

by Jon Papernick

Jon Papernick’s first collection of stories, The Ascent of Eli Israel, is a subtle, chilling, and wistful “celebration” of the war-torn devastation and spiritual stoicism that afflicts modern-day Israel. These stories are raw, yet uncannily surreal.

In “Malchyk,” a naïvely patriotic Jewish boy stumbles upon a ghoulish cast of holy men, stone-throwers, and POWs while searching for his missing military father amidst the rubble of Arab-occupied Jerusalem. The title story careens from gentle humility to psychopathological extremism as Eli, a debauched New York television producer seeking redemption in Jerusalem, suddenly finds himself blasting a young, retreating Palestinian with a torrent of (apparently) divinely charged bullets. Eli’s self-justification is grotesquely diffident: “God teaches you hard.… These things happen on the road to redemption, on the road to Jerusalem. But God forgives you for what you do and I love Him.”

Papernick ably links the country’s territorial displacements to his characters’ emotional states, creating a series of interiorized no man’s lands suspended in futile nightmare. Sharp and subtle characterizations also compel the reader to careen through a host of insidious emotional inversions: empathy devolves into contempt, revulsion congeals into fear, nostalgia leaks unexpected horrors.

Despite the prescient grimness, Papernick offers up precious facets of faith. The fragile assurance by a Jewish son, concerned for his mother’s debilitating sanity before a host of Nazi deliria (she is a Holocaust survivor), is gently luminous: “Of course, we will not forget Momma,” he whispers, “Look at the stars. There are six million of them. And the moon, it is so beautiful tonight.” Under the sway of this more wistful perspective, Papernick’s imagery is spare, hushed, and poignant.

Papernick’s cosmos is capricious: the gods (whether Jewish, Christian, Muslim, or Arabic; whether actual or mere projection) are vengeful, mordant, and fickle. The futility of this disorientation is haunting, for to embrace Israel’s embattled legacy is to be stuck between a rock and a hard place. But it is exactly Papernick’s narrative limbo, his clever mapping of territorial and psychological displacement, that distinguishes this mature debut.