NABOKV-L post 0008833, Fri, 31 Oct 2003 08:31:47 -0800

One finds a flutter of Nabokov here,
a scurry of Kafka there ... (fwd) Jules Bukiet story
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Date: Thursday, October 30, 2003 7:05 AM -0500

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OCTOBER 31, 2003

A Flutter of Nabokov, a Scurry of Kafka

In a New Collection of Short Stories, Melvin Jules Bukiet Channels the

A Faker's Dozen: Stories
By Melvin Jules Bukiet
W.W. Norton & Company, 268 pages, $23.95.


By Mark Shechner

If a baker's dozen is 13, then what is a faker's dozen? Try 11, because
that is the number of stories Melvin Jules Bukiet gives us in his new
collection of stories, "A Faker's Dozen." You can complain, if you like,
that Bukiet, like a light-fingered merchant, has shorted you a story, but
you can't say that he didn't warn you.

I don't know the precise word for what Bukiet is doing here. These stories,
modeled playfully on the writing of a few modernist masters, aren't exactly
parodies or sendups, since the intention is more reverential than
satirical. Nor are they exactly homages, though there is ever so much
homage in them. I prefer to think of them as covers, in the way that
musicians "cover" the performances of their predecessors. By covering the
standards, you pay tribute, but you also enter into competition, and I like
to think of Bukiet in these stories covering the greats, improvising his
tributes and then blowing his own horn.

Who are they? One finds a flutter of Nabokov here, a scurry of Kafka there,
a hint of Borges, a whiff of Calvino, a tincture of Malamud and homeopathic
doses perhaps of Philip Roth and the Marx Brothers. Bukiet even covers
Bukiet in one story. It is hard in particular not to spot Nabokov's shadow
here, with a book whose title recalls "Nabokov's Dozen" and an opening
story, "Squeak Memory," in which a character not unlike Bukiet himself
stalks the author of "Lolita" through the streets of midtown Manhattan and
makes off with the master's shoes.

That opening story sets the mood of the book. It finds a young narrator,
during the Watergate hearings in 1973, spying Nabokov on a Manhattan street
and deciding to tail him. "'Hey,' I said to myself, 'this is a creepy thing
to do. This is what G. Gordon Liddy did.'" Our storyteller here is a
budding connoisseur of the creepy. He has been reading the Russian classics
? Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Chekhov, Biely and Nabokov ? and has become a kind
of underground man of Manhattan, wandering the city in battered footwear,
"a pair of Converse All-Stars that had seen better days."

Following the great novelist to a shoe store, where he espies Nabokov
picking out a pair of oxblood cordovans, he then tails him to the very
corridor of his hotel, keeping a discreet distance. Why Nabokov should
leave his new shoes outside the door, where some literary stalker might
well trade them for a pair of wet sneakers, is never clear, but what
happens is that the narrator walks off with snappy new cordovans, leaving
the master a pair of soaking All-Stars to squish around in. The spirit of
Watergate dirty tricks, it seems, has inspired a young writer to become his
own G. Gordon Liddy. Homage and larceny come together in one inspired
moment, as a man in sneakers turns out to be, after all, a sneak.

There is homage and furtiveness aplenty in these stories, and the fusion of
the two is material for Bukiet's freewheeling comedy. In "The Return of
Eros to Academe," a philosophy professor named Herman Stone ? yes, old
Philosopher Stone ? finds himself infatuated with a trophy-hunting
undergrad who seems to be working him for a grade. He enters class one
morning, announcing "Kant today," to which a student replies, "Sure you
can, Prof." Doing a poor job of hiding an affair with a student, Professor
Stone throws up his hands, announcing, "Trish, this is absurd." "Oh, stop
joking," she replies, "everyone on campus knows you don't do twentieth
century." Wit like that deserves an A.

Turning the spotlight onto someone like himself, Bukiet gives us in "Paper
Hero" a novelist named Randall who is desperate to call attention to his
novel "Strange Fire," the title of Bukiet's own last novel. So he arranges
to have himself shot at the Frankfurt Book Fair by an "Islamic terrorist,"
targeting Randall for writing a book that "desecrates our Lord," i.e.
Allah. Randall is aspiring to be Salman Rushdie Redux and then some. The
book took him two years to write, Randall grumbles, and now he "sits alone
at bar in hotel lobby with thousands of other authors trying to separate
their books from the other literary seaweed in the Sargasso." Assassination
threats confer instant celebrity on unknown writers, and no author who has
ever found himself terminally mid-list or out of print is unfamiliar with
this desperation, or with wishing for the providential fatwa that will lift
him out of obscurity and into tabloid heaven.

Bukiet gives us the mock-epic "The Suburbiad," a high school tall tale
featuring warriors like Larry Resnick, son of "the masters of Western
Foundations, bra makers to the trade, gross sales in the eight figures,"
and maidens like his beloved and elusive Rolaine Rosen, "heiress to the
Rosen Faucet Fortune," and the lumbering Estelle Oblomowitz, "Estelle of
ungainly tread," whose face has "lunched a thousand chips." Cruel, but
sidesplittingly funny.

Bukiet reaches for something more perverse in "Philofilia," a "Lolita" in
reverse in which it is the mother who poaches on her 11-year-old son. In
"Tongue of the Jews," he reaches even further into the dark with a story
about the gentile biographer of a Jewish Holocaust survivor who decides to
convert to Judaism in order, it seems, to violate the kosher laws, after
his survivor-subject has violated a commandment or two by seducing his
wife. Still sore from his circumcision, he stops in a coffee shop for a ham
and cheese on rye. And in "The Two Franzes," which strikes me as the book's
most fully realized story, a 12-year-old Franz Kafka plays an unlikely
Cupid to the sentimental dramatist Franz Grillparzer, carrying messages
from the dramatist to his lover, a high-born woman who lives in, yes, a

It may appear as though in "A Faker's Dozen" Bukiet is taking a holiday
from his nightmares: the Holocaust ? explored in his novel "After" (1996)
and the anthology "Nothing Makes You Free" (2002) ? and Israeli politics,
which provided the stage for "Strange Fire" (2001). But it may also be that
he is tunneling into the subduction zone of his terrors from a different
angle. Unlike Professor Stone, Bukiet does do 20th century. He may just be
playing when, in "The Two Franzes," Kafka's sister calls him "you little
insect" or the young Franz tells the heart-sore Grillparzer, "It sort of
sounds like you're accused of a crime, but you don't even know what the
crime is." But when in the story "The War Lovers," a crime and war
photographer who makes his living from death finds himself being hunted
down at an Easter parade by a giant mechanical Easter bunny, you don't know
whether to laugh or flee. Bukiet, our contemporary master of bad dreams,
reminds us that! the grotesque is another word for reality and that in this
life a Jewish man must always keep a watchful eye on the Easter bunny.

So let's call what Bukiet does here his communion with the modernist
masters, the writers who have given him his chops: his Humbertian eyesight,
his hunger artistry, his underground Schadenfreude, his inventive freedom
and his nervous, fugitive laughter. He has learned well from his
apprenticeship: If the shoe fits, steal it.

Mark Shechner's most recent book is "Up Society's Ass, Copper! Rereading
Philip Roth," published this year by University of Wisconsin Press. He is
currently preparing for publication the late Mark Krupnick's book of
essays, "Jewish Writing and the Deep Places of the
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