Tales from Rural Australia to Crown Heights
Take the first two stories in Goldie Goldbloom’s new book You Lose These, a collection of short stories. No, I mean it: Take the title down, go to the store, and buy a copy. Right now. Then come back. I’ll wait.
Now read these first two stories. First “The Road to Katherine,” then “You Lose These: A Queer Ulysses.” I’ll wait.
Notice how little the two have in common: The setting (rural Western Australia and Crown Heights, a Hasidic neighbourhood in Brooklyn); the main characters (the former is about a girl who’s never given the chance to be a girl; the latter is about a middle-aged woman who’s remembering what it’s like to be a girl).
And, last, the stories themselves: In “Katherine,” the title character is dropped off a second-story roof by her father as punishment. Afterward, he teases her, dismissing it as accidental. In “You Lose These,” Geo Bloom–a slick amalgam of Goldbloom’s name and the protagonist of Ulysses, Leo Bloom–is the object of a forbidden lesbian crush within an insular ultra-Orthodox community, possibly one of the places where lesbian crushes are most forbidden. And, just in case you’re thinking of setting this book aside for a more intimate moment, don’t bother. It’s not that kind of story:
She would lose everything if she wore her truest self. She would lose her home. Her children. Her job. Her family. Her community. You lose these when you say those words. And this is what you lose when you cannot say those words. You lose yourself.
Whenever I read stories about Hasidic Jews, I instinctively cringe. Either they’re going to be totally disconnected from reality, like Joshua Braff’s Peep Show, or they’ll be too true, and they’ll dwell on the negative parts of our culture and play it up like the literary equivalent of a tabloid. Goldbloom’s stories don’t mince facts. “You Lose These” is about a woman caught between her community and her desire, trying to make sense of her own life, and losing what’s important. But as on-point as that story is in its unflinching description of a woman trying to make sense of her religious obligations and her emotions, Goldbloom captures other aspects of the Hasidic community, too. In “Undesirable,” a dating couple each has their own baggage. He’s a baal teshuva, a person who didn’t grow up religious; she’s a survivor of cancer whose genetics don’t bode well for her life beyond the next few years. The story definitely has its depressing bits, but it blooms into a series of tender, almost sweet moments.
It also contains my favourite moment in the entire book. At a restaurant, after the soup but before the fortune cookies, the groom proposes. She says yes.
“Fantastic,” said Yitzchak, like a normal human being, and then, not like a normal human being, he climbed onto the seat of his chair and began to sing in a loud, slightly off-key falsetto, “Wonder of wonders, miracle of miracles, God took a tailor by the hand….
It’s such a brilliant and tense and well-constructed and utterly clueless moment (clueless on the part of the baal teshuva in love, of course, not the author) and it doesn’t just break the tension of the story — it eviscerates it. That’s the kind of humour that’s at the heart of this collection: Not wicked at all and not spiteful. Just good-natured, lowbrow humour that anyone and everyone can appreciate, and should appreciate. Oh, Goldbloom throws us social commentary — including one story which centres on the Sydney Jewish community, and on a rabbi who takes advantage of one of his congregants — but one gets the sense that these are the backgrounds of her stories, not their emotional hearts. Indeed, these recurring silly moments — the tragic end of “The Decline and Fall of Drusilla Ann Gherkin,” which does its title justice; the bogan-meets-boho tragedy of a country mother who attends her daughter’s kabbalah-flavoured wedding in the big city in “I Have Tasted Muskrat”; the straight-up bizarreness of “The Resurrection of the Messiah,” in which the title character makes his first appearance in a bush town and resurrects a deceased wino — seem like they’re the deepest kind of humour, the kind that makes us laugh and makes us a little sad and also reveals some deep, universal human truth.
And then there’s the first story, “The Road to Katherine.” It’s the story of a young girl who’s forced to learn some life lessons way too young. But the centrepiece of the entire story seems to be a moment right after its opening incident, in which Care is tossed off a roof, where her mother pulls her up and says to her: “He dropped you. Whatever he says, remember: He dropped you.”
All fiction has elements of nonfiction to it. Not that Goldbloom’s father (or anyone else, for that matter) dropped her off a roof, but all the scenes in all these stories are nearly unanimously that shocking, and that true, and that good. Yes, Goldbloom is a Hasidic Jew who can write about stores like House of Glatt from personal experience, and yes, she mentors queer and transgender youth, and can write about gay life experiences. Did she ever taste muskrat? That’s anybody’s guess. But one thing’s for certain: She can write well enough to make you think you did.