There are a hundred writers that I want to have a beer with, but Etgar Keret isn't one of them.
I want to almost have a beer with him — to have plans and a time and a place — and then for everything to go wrong. For trains to break down, cabs to be late; for him to be delayed by a missing wallet or a flood in his hotel, for me to blow a tire and for my cell phone to die so that we miss each other, arriving at the bar at different times to find it actively on fire or already burned to the ground.
Only later, by the oddest of coincidences, will we find ourselves standing in line at the same pet store or waiting to cross the street and we'll both apologize and tell our stories and be equally impressed by the ridiculous lengths to which fate had gone to keep us from having that beer. But we will have gotten stories, which are sometimes better. Particularly for Keret, who'll undoubtedly write his down (referring to me glancingly as "an odd American book critic I was meant to have a drink with"), publish it in a collection of essays, and then go on (deservedly) to win every award ever invented.
That might very well be how his newest book, The Seven Good Years, came together — this collection of unusual coincidences, and tiny vignettes of a life lived on the constant, bittersweet edge of surrealism. This scattering of laughs. This pack of sighs. This charming and heartbreaking pile of stories that cover the years between the birth of Keret's son, Lev, and the death of his beloved father. It starts with a terrorist attack — with Keret in a hospital maternity ward where the doctors have all been called away, waiting for his wife to give birth — and ends with a rocket attack on Tel Aviv, with Keret, his wife and son all lying on top of each other (playing "Pastrami Sandwich") by the side of the road and listening to the air raid sirens and distant explosions. In between, it has anti-semites, air travel, war, telemarketers, Hebrew Book Week, the magic of dreams, war, IKEA boycotts, preschool, Disneyland, Ehud Olmert pretending to be a cat, war and war.
Keret calls it a memoir but it's really a TARDIS — a time machine that does two kinds of magic at once. First, it takes us back through seven years of Keret's history, showing us the world (its beauty, madness, and inescapable strangeness) through his sharp and sympathetic observations. It's not an overtly political book, but one defined by violence, bookended by life and death.
Second, he writes stories that are bigger on the inside. Keret can give us a day in a handful of words, a life in four paragraphs, a war in two pages, then downshift and spend five discussing the fundamentalist and geopolitical implications of playing Angry Birds ("Under the adorable surface of the funny animals and their sweet voices, Angry Birds is actually a game that is consistent with the spirit of religious fundamentalist terrorists...a game in which you are prepared to sacrifice your life just so you can destroy the houses of unarmed enemies and vaporize their wives and children inside."). The stories, despite their length, feel full and generous. They never leave you feeling cheated because there is value in every word. Even the silly ones.
Maybe especially the silly ones. Because Keret is a funny guy in the way that sad guys can be when they don't let the sadness and their general displeasure with the world turn them sour. When they transmute this sadness into something else: hope, satire, a meditation on doing pilates with injured ballerinas, a conversation with his newborn son, whatever.
"Six hours later, a midget with a cable hanging from his belly button comes popping out of my wife's vagina and immediately starts to cry. I try to calm him down, to convince him that there's nothing to worry about. That by the time he grows up, everything here in the Middle East will be settled." This is the author meeting his son—born in the aftermath of a terrorist attack, in the hospital stripped of doctors, on a day that is just any other day except for Keret and his wife, and for Lev. "He quiets down and then considers his next move. He's supposed to be naive — seeing as how he's a newborn — but even he doesn't buy it, and after a second's hesitation and a small hiccup, he goes back to crying."
Seven years later, the Middle East is still a mess. There are still attacks and there are still tears, but so, too, is there still Keret and his wife and Lev. Time goes. Babies are born and old men die and all we can hope for is to gather some beautiful, small stories to make sense of where we've come from and where we're going.
Jason Sheehan is an ex-chef, a former restaurant critic and the current food editor of Philadelphia magazine. But when no one is looking, he spends his time writing books about spaceships, aliens, giant robots and ray guns. Tales From the Radiation Age is his newest book.