Once upon a time, Philip Roth was reviled for his filthy imagination, manic accounts of masturbation, and unflattering depictions of Jews. But even at his most rebellious, Portnoy-era Roth couldn’t hold a candle to Shalom Auslander. Both inspired and unnerved by the birth of his first child, Auslander took a good long look at his upbringing in an oppressive Orthodox Jewish community. His memoir, Foreskin’s Lament, plays the spectacle for laughs, but beneath the extremely funny shtick is one ferociously angry book.
According to Auslander, his volatile father regularly guzzled Manischewitz and flew into violent rages, while his doleful mother sighed and fussed about keeping kosher. Their lives were governed by joyless rabbis who introduced Auslander to the Hebrew God,”an abusive, belligerent god, a god who awoke millennia ago on the wrong side of the firmament and still hasn’t cheered up.”
God’s pet peeves become Auslander’s favorite pastimes: He binges on nonkosher Slim Jims and watches Christy Canyon skin flicks. Every transgression inspires fears of retribution, crescendoing in Auslander’s semicomic crisis over whether to circumcise his newborn son. Auslander overuses some of his material; there are about a dozen too many mediocre masturbation jokes. He’s a gifted writer digging for something deep and rich in his problematic past, but he’s never going to find it lunging after every sophomoric laugh. B+