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Dogs and Monsters

Shalom Auslander writes his way out of misery, latching on to a comic tradition he traces from Beckett to the National Lampoon.

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Shalom Auslander began entertaining doubts about religion as a young boy in upstate New York. Stifled by his Orthodox family and community, he relocated to New York City where he shed his yarmulke and took a job writing advertising copy. A frequent contributor to This American Life, Auslander began Beware of God two years ago. The stories read like parables: a yeshiva boy wakes to find he is a hirsute construction worker, a monkey is done in by newfound awareness of shame, the Peanuts gang divides into two warring tribes. But don’t be fooled by their whimsy. Like any good cartoonist, Auslander uses the veneer of funny to soften the punches reality throws.

The title of your book reminds me of a joke I once heard about a dyslexic pet owner. What are you trying to get at?

It’s not like I’m a big dog lover, but I have a “Beware of Dog” sign on my house. I feel the same way about God. If you use it wrong, it’s something to be very afraid of, but it’s not inherently bad. There are some good dogs and there are some bad dogs. Unfortunately with the God bit, most of it I see as naughty dogs.

We messed around with cover ideas—there were a few that used the actual Beware sign. I didn’t want it to be that, because the stories aren’t. The stories don’t profess to have a definite point of view. Some are saying the idea of God is ludicrous. And some are saying, I kind of feel for God sometimes. It’s not about one specific answer. There’s a lot of God stuff around now that’s pretty heavy. I feel like it’s the question right now.

Isn’t it a perennial?

For a while we were diverted by nukes and Cold Wars, and we felt religious wars were a thing of the past. And they’re clearly not. I don’t get the sense that anyone wants to talk about it, other than in a theological, serious sense. That worries me. The book opens with a quote from Bill Hicks, who was talking about this kind of stuff when you weren’t supposed to. He mostly talked about Christianity cause that’s where he came from.

You grew up in a very Orthodox home. What made you bolt?

I don’t know, except I’m glad it happened. I don’t think I’d be alive if it didn’t, because it made me that unhappy. Maybe that’s what it takes. But I don’t think you can compartmentalize it. It wasn’t religion that made me leave, and it wasn’t just family. It was a combination of being in something of a stereotypical but also rather dysfunctional family combined with a religion, or a form of a religion, that allowed for nothing. And in a community that had no windows. There were a lot of conditions for love and affection and continued membership, And they were serious, and they were ludicrous. It was, “You don’t wear a yarmulke you can get out. You intermarry, we sit Shiva for you. You eat non-kosher and our children are not allowed to hang out with you.”

I mention in one of the stories that I think absolute belief to be the easiest thing. And I can’t listen to someone who has never doubted or gone their own way tell me how I am supposed to live my life. I remember going into the laundry room on Friday night at a young age and going OK, I want to see what happens if I put this light on. And you do it and hold your breath and wait to die. And you don’t. You shut it off before your parents find out. At some point, you do the math: If God didn’t kill me, my parents will. How are you supposed to grow up wanting to be around that?

How did you get started writing these stories?

In 2003, I decided that I needed space from my family. Under the advice of my wife and some highly paid mental health professionals, I was advised to request that time. One night, I closed the door and composed this letter. I was a wreck writing it, bawling throughout—about my pain, let me go, and if I don’t do this, I don’t know that I’m going to be able to ever live and be who I need to be. I got up to show it to my wife, reached the end of the hall and said, I want to do another version, because this is not the movie of my life. This is the movie of my mother’s life—heavy, Shoah music playing in the background. It’s not how I feel.
And I wrote a letter in five minutes that had me laughing. I began trying to explain how I feel when I’m around the family. And I think started with, “You know how when Bugs Bunny gets shot in cartoons, there’s like 50 billion shots before he actually hits the ground? That’s kind of how I feel when I’m around you.” That was 7 PM and then at 9 o’clock I sat down and wrote something to the effect of “When Schwartzman died he was surprised to find out that God was a big happy chicken.” I wrote the book in six, eight months. I remember it as a really happy time—and not just ’cause of the pot.

Did you always want to be a writer?

I always wanted to write, though I didn’t really know why. I’ve come to realize that it’s actually not about being a writer but that it sustains me, it’s very therapeutic. If I don’t do it, I’m the biggest prick on the planet. Growing up in a family in a world that respects books, even if they’re Hebrew and written as direction, writing was with a capital W and in italics. It was a very serious thing to do.

Who are some of the writers you like best?

I didn’t go to college, so I had to find them and they’re not really writerly. Old Mark Twain, when he was pissed off and doing stuff that wasn’t anything huge. Terry Southern, Michael O’Donoghue of the National Lampoon, Bill Hicks—these are just guys, who just had something to say and said it without worrying too much about the repercussions. I really dig Stanley Elkin, not so much the style, but his attitude and perspective. Crumb. There’s a cartoonist named Ivan Brunetti who is just completely fucking crazy and I love him for it—sold like four comic books, but a lot of these guys are just doing the things they want to do.

When your editor sent along your book, he likened you to Etgar Keret.

He sent me Bus Driver. I was actually impressed and then worried, “Oh shit, someone has done this already.” I thought it was really interesting. It ended up being quite different, surreal but playing with ideas. He was interesting, coming from where he comes from, this other planet, and somehow we end up in similar real estate.

You mean, people metamorphosing into other creatures and talking animals?

Yes, and I was actually very much into plays more than books and novels. Beckett, when he wasn’t purposely trying to confuse me; Ionesco; Pinter, where there was just this idea. Originally I was doing little two- and three-character plays that were fun for me. The main thing with Kafka was, who knew you could do that? He gave himself permission to do this stuff, freedom to just let his dreams talk to him. He read these stories to friends and laughed and laughed. And then, how many years later, it’s dealt with with the most seriousness.

I was really into Beckett as well, and I remember reading his inspiration for Waiting for Godot was Laurel and Hardy. He just saw these two guys with bowlers and thought they were really funny. Later, I saw the Irish Rep at Lincoln Center. It was so fast-paced and comical. It’s kind of a hard line to draw from Beckett to Michael O’Donoghue, but I think there is a line.

Some of your stories take a child’s point of view: “Heimish Knows All,” where the boy feels sure his dog is scorning him for masturbating; “Holocaust Tips for Kids,” a how-to guide for eluding death. Why?

It wasn’t particularly an artistic choice, as much as it was that was what I learned as a kid. I had Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the top corner of every room, every place I ever went, staring at me, deciding whether I was good or bad and giving a report to God on should they kill me or not.

The Holocaust story is separate, because that weighed so heavily on my family. I’m a survivor of survivors. My mother’s family got shipped out. I was very young being shown graphic things. They’ll hide pornography under the bed in a locked box, but they’ll show me piles of dead bodies being pushed into a grave.

Your stories all revolve around the idea of God. So, I’ve got to ask—what is your conception of God? And, do you believe?

It’s ever-changing. I do, because I don’t want to not. And because I can’t—that picture of a frowning angry God is something I’ll never get rid of, no matter how hard I try. I have a hard time believing the opposite, believing that me and my wife finding each other and our love and our child are accidents. It would be hard to live thinking that things are that random. Life is hard. One of the ways people get through it is philosophy. One is drugs, one is religion. Whatever you need to get through your 80, 90 years here, it’s fine with me. But religion will never really get me through anything, and I’ve always resented the fact that it was taken away from me. I’ll have to smoke a joint, I’ll have to write, which for me is religion, solace, laughter, and forgetting.

You’ve been working on a memoir…

Which I did not want to do. You get into this Jerry Springer mode and I didn’t feel like spending a year trudging around in the basement of my life. I fought it for a long time and spoke to lots of people about why they read them, and came to the conclusion that if you can find some bigger story beyond my terrible life, if someone can look at this and think twice about the nature of their belief or the way they’re raising their family, if there’s something greater beyond the person that it happened to, then I was able to make peace with it. It’s slow-going.

It wasn’t until I wrote “Blessing Bee” that I realized that a lot of stuff which professes to hold the answers to every problem on the face of the earth is not one bit of good at solving even the most basic family problems. That’s what seemed interesting to me. When it came down to it, I had a depressive mother, an abusive father and just a very fucked-up family. All those rules, all those traditions—how to pray, how to think, how to feel—didn’t offer an ounce of help.

Do you have a title for it?

I have a title I’m playing with, Serving Time in the Big House of the Lord. I think I want to start it with a prayer asking forgiveness from Hashem. That’s the little kid inside of me, thinking I’m going to be punished for this. I don’t quite know how it’s going to go. It’s likely the chapters would be Chapter 1: Faith. Chapter 2: Doubt. Chapter 3: Faith. Chapter 4: Doubt. And on and on.

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Dogs and Monsters

Shalom Auslander writes his way out of misery, latching on to a comic tradition he traces from Beckett to the National Lampoon.

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