Kalooki Nights’ Unhealthy Obsession

By Helene Dunbar


Review of Kalooki Nights, by Howard Jacobson (Simon & Schuster, 2007).

I was meant to like Howard Jacobson’s Kalooki Nights. I was meant to find this ninth book by Jacobson, which was a finalist for the prestigious Man Booker Prize, to be funny, deep, and insightful, if the high-brow reviews are to be believed.

Instead, as I plodded through the story of Max Glickman, a Jewish cartoonist, growing up in 1950s England, I had the same feeling that a convicted person must feel as they enter a prison to serve a multi-decade sentence.

What bothered me so fervently through this entire book is that every character, from Max, to his atheistic father, card-playing stereotypical mother (the book’s title comes from her “Jewish” card game–can a card game be owned by a religion? Kalooki), Orthodox neighbors, and loathing ex-wives define themselves by their Jewishness, their non-Jewishness or their opinions about the Jewishness of others.

The Holocaust is so omnipresent in this book that you might have thought the book was set in a camp, instead of the English suburbs, and perhaps it would have been a more interesting book if it had been. An adolescent Max sees his first nude woman in a photo of camp prisoners walking to the ovens in a book called Scourge of the Swastica. His “great” work, a graphic novel titled Five Thousand Years of Bitterness and subtitled “The F*cking of the Jews,” is pretty indicative of how I felt reading this convoluted story about characters I never connected with or felt anything for.

What plot there is revolves around Max’s obsessive childhood friend Manny, his repressed Orthodox neighbor. In killing his parents (three guesses as to how he does it, but think concentration camp), Manny takes the only action that fleshes him out as a character. Manny’s brother Asher however, whose forbidden love affair is at the heart of the novel’s central story (as well as to the mystery of why Max killed his parents), is intriguing. An obedient Orthodox son until he falls in love with the half-German daughter of his parents’ cleaning lady, his life is turned upside down when his parents’ refusal to even consider acknowledging the relationship drives the girl away. As luck would have it, we never actually get to hear from him-we only hear about him in Manny’s words and veiled through Manny’s distorted view of the situation.

Max himself has been married three times. His first two wives, Chloë and Zoë, follow a string of other similarly named non-Jews. “What does it say about me that the only people with whom I am able to enjoy intimacy must have diaereses or umlauts in their names?” he asks. They are not only not Jewish, but they are vile creatures, whose only frame of reference to their husband is in terms of his role as a Jew–one asks him to get a nose job and the other tells him on their wedding night, “You’ll burn in hell whether I pray for you or not.”

But Max doesn’t fare any better with Jewish women. His first girlfriend gives him crabs and his third and only Jewish wife, Alÿs, is “depressed every day.” Max, of course, does not think she might need counseling, or medication, or perhaps a change of job or scenery. Instead he offers to marry her because he thinks that her acceptance would signify a belief in the future. “The bells would ring, the gates to all the camps and ghettos of Eastern Europe would fly open, and the Americans would be there with Hershey bars.” Of course it doesn’t work, but then we never really get an indication of the roots of Alÿs’ depression, which, to Max, all comes down to her Jewishness.

Even his sister Shoni’s Irish husband Mick is caught up in a type of Jew-envy. “It upset him,” according to Max, “that there were elements of Judaism he was never going to master.” Not even the Irish sailor is allowed in this book to be happy with his lot in life without defining himself by his Jewishness or, in this case, non-Jewishness.

Jacobson’s greater point seems to be some perverted version of “those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it.” Every one of his characters, in either their embracing of the suffering of the Holocaust or their denial of it, relives the pain and persecution of an entire race on a daily basis. Perhaps this was the case for many people in 1950s England. I can only guess though, that some people attempted to make sense of the horrors by living their lives and trying to focus on the outside world.

The only one who comes close to this–although he’s like the person who tells himself not to think about snakes but then obsesses about snakes–is Max’s father, who did not have Max bar mitzvahed. Who “believed that Jews bore a special responsibility not to be special, so he hated Israel for existing, then hated it for not existing well.” In that he is probably a reflection of many who lived through an unimaginable time only to turn away from the complexity of the pain and cultural coping mechanisms that remained.

There is no doubt that this is important subject matter and yes, I’d admit that Jacobson’s prose is well-crafted. But in trying to sum up an entire guilt-ridden generation he creates a twisted piece that is agony to read. “Jew, Jew, Jew. Why, why, why as my father asked until the asking killed him, does everything always have to come back to Jew, Jew, Jew,” asks Max. Strangely enough I had the same question.


About Helene Dunbar

Helene Dunbar by day is a marketing and communications manager for a Jewish non-profit in New York City. By night she writes about Irish traditional music for Irish Music Magazine and other publications.