Searching for connection while trying to figure out who we are as individuals is the pressing theme at the heart of You and Me, Belonging (Tightrope Books)— Aaron Kreuter’s outstanding debut collection of short stories. Kreuter quickly and powerfully establishes character, motivation and obstacle and draws the reader in towards the struggles of the respective protagonists, who vary in their age, gender, class and life stage, but all of whom are in some fashion propelled by their Jewish identity. The settings are well drawn, the dialogue is tight, Kreuter deftly transitions from one point of view to another – sometimes even within the same story – and the characters are appealingly vulnerable.
The plots and settings in the collection are delightfully varied. An Arab-Jewish love affair in a Montreal restaurant kitchen, on a “bed of aprons” with “pillows of dishtowels,” ends up taking on elements of unexpected meaning. Three friends visit a youth hostel in Amsterdam after a sex-soaked Birthright trip. There, Anne Frank makes an unexpected appearance in the fantasies of one of the young men, against the background of a group of card-playing and grilled-sandwich-making German tourists. “Would Anne,” the young Jewish-Canadian Birthrighter thinks, “have fallen in love with the kibbutz they spent two nights on, the kind, old weathered Israeli who gave them a tour of the banana grove? Would Anne have slept with a soldier? Would Anne have cried at the Western Wall, crammed into the small section set aside for the women?”
A middle-aged corporate executive with a crumbling marriage follows his guitar-playing dreams, in a journey that combines an eery mixture of musical artistry with crass materialism. Kreuter’s prose delivers us directly into the musical moment: “Crude [the protagonist’s idol] started to lay down a solo: slow, quiet at first picking up its pieces, getting louder, more determined, mining deep holes of melodic ore, ad then peaking, bellowing, pronouncing….” and Ricky’s own industrious instrumentation — “the speed with which he could play the A minor pentatonic backwards and forwards incrementally improved….”and into the sphere of his conspicuous consumption: “Ricky’s guitar collection grew large enough to warrant bringing the contractors back to wall off a section of the great room to ensure air quality.”
An expectant couple wrestles with the burden of circumcision, where, in a “staring contest with tradition,” the decision is far from simple. A young couple struggles to eke out their professional and personal identities while trying to maintain a gentle domesticity. And a group of friends take to the road to follow a band in a nearly novella-length final story that begins playfully, a century before the main action: “Mordechai Tradewsky was staying at the West Porch Saloon and Hotel in Red Hook, South Dakota when he dropped dead of a heart attack in the spring of 1911.”
Bits of Jewish symbolism, including various familiar tropes are woven smartly into these well-wrought stories: a Hanukkah cheque sent to an estranged son; a bat mitzvah savings account awaiting the impulses of a searching adult; a post-Birthright pot-soaked sojourn in Amsterdam; the intermediate days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur enabling an apology; a young woman obsessed with Holocaust films; a childhood friendship complicated by different subsequent paths of Jewish religiosity; the evolution of a bar mitzvah DJ’s empire.
One is tempted to compare emerging writers to those who’ve come before. Ayelet Tsabari, whose own short-story collection won the Sami Rohr prize for Jewish literature, and early Michael Chabon (who, before he rose to fame with long, ambitious novels, penned a moving collection of stories called A Model World), come to mind. But Kreuter has a writing voice — both sharply contemporary and attuned to the poetry of timeless writing — all his own. The Toronto-based author has previously written a collection of poetry, and has published various pieces in anthologies, magazines and literary journals. This latest book of fiction is definitely one to read. For my part, I’m already awaiting his next work.