Beware of God, by Shalom Auslander

Reaction by Maud Newton:

Shalom Auslander grew up in an Orthodox Jewish community, but “made a pivotal break with his faith at a Rangers game.”

On last weekend’s This American Life, he read a short piece about working as a “watcher” — a job that entailed sitting with dead people during the time after death when “the soul departs the body … but sort of hangs out” until the burial. Auslander explained:

This could be a terribly distressing thing for the soul, what with all the not having a body, and the being invisible, and the floating around. Therefore, the rabbis decreed, from the moment of death to the moment of burial the body of the deceased must never be left alone.

So he sat around in cold funeral home basements, eating Doritos, smoking dope, and making $85 per body.

Auslander’s nonfiction shares themes with Nathan Englander’s short story collection, For the Relief of Unbearable Urges, but Englander’s writing is passive and solemn compared to Auslander’s comical, biting stories.

Between the watcher piece and another recent “This American Life” segment, The Blessing Bee, I can’t wait for Auslander’s memoir. But for now I’ve contented myself with reading his forthcoming short story collection, Beware of God, which appears in April and focuses on faith (or, in some cases, the lack thereof) and the absurdity of its possible manifestations.

In “Smite the Heathens, Charlie Brown,” for instance, Charles Schultz’s death precipitates a deep rift in the Peanuts community, between Schultzians (who “believe in a Creator who writes and draws us every single day”) and Pumpkinites (who “believe in the Great Pumpkin who flies around and rewards his believers on Halloween”).

“Startling Revelations from the Lost Book of Stan” features a hapless, unemployed protagonist who takes a soul-searching trek through the Israeli wilderness and discovers some ancient Biblical tablets in a cave. While experts admit that the ancient tablets are far older than any previously found — surely a discovery worth enough money for our hero to support his wife and unborn child — they refuse to attest to their authenticity.

As luck would have it:

the text of this Oldest Testament of Them All was identical to every Not Quite as Old Testament written after it, down to the very last letter, except for one short paragraph at the very top of the very first tablet, a paragraph that seemed to have been dropped from the later editions, a paragraph that simply read:

The following is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to persons living or dead is entirely coincidental.

And in my favorite passage of “Prophet’s Dilemma,” a man plagued by frequent and complex orders from God ventures to the hardware store to buy materials for an ark:

“Excuse me,” Shwartzman said to the Home Depot man, “an you tell me where to find tar?”

“Tar?” asked the Home Depot man. “What’re you using tar for?”

“I’m building an ark,” said Shwartzman.

If there was anything that two years of God’s completely preposterous homework assignments had taught Shwartzman it was that there was absolutely nothing you could tell Home Depot Man you were building that would surprise him, that would get any reaction from him at all, for that matter, aside from the usual skepticism about your choice of building materials.”

I wonder if you could help me. I’m building a Babylonian temple.

A messianic chariot.

An altar for ritual animal sacrifice.

“An altar, eh?” Home Depot Man had asked. “You gonna be using fire on that?”

Click on some of the “This American Life” links embedded at the top of this post to judge Auslander’s work for yourself.

Details: Beware of God, by Shalom Auslander, Simon & Schuster, 208 pp., $19.95.


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