At the opening of Hope: A Tragedy, Solomon Kugel and his family move to tiny Stockton, New York, specifically because it is a town with no history. There are bumper stickers proudly proclaiming that no famous people were born there, or that the site of a famous Revolutionary War battle took place elsewhere. But, as the book quickly makes abundantly clear, no one can run from history.
Hope: A Tragedy sometimes feels a little too familiar. It’s specifically reminiscent of the Coen brothers’ A Serious Man, where a Jewish protagonist deals with mortality, Jewish culture, and a series of life-ruining, apparently supernatural attacks through bitter humor and revelatory experience. Maybe it’s a cliché, but author Shalom Auslander (who debuted with the striking short-story collection Beware Of God) demonstrates why it’s become cliché: It’s effective and entertaining.
Throughout the book, Kugel constantly ponders what the best last words or tombstone inscription might be. Early in the novel, he apologizes to his young son, remembering that when holding him for the first time, Kugel thought the baby should sue his parents for the selfish act of bringing him into the world. Amusing as the morbid humor can be, it also makes the book’s points clear. The tale of a man coming to grips with death, failing his family, and pondering human atrocities sounds like a combination of many of the most off-putting aspects of literary fiction. But when it’s attached to a father wondering which will be more awkward with his son, the sex talk or the Holocaust talk, it works.
Kugel is the book’s sole point-of-view character, and while his head is an interesting place, Hope takes off when he engages in discussion with other characters. In the book’s best scene, he confronts the previous owner of his house, who left a Holocaust-related surprise in the attic. The former owner, a German-American, is as paralyzed by history as Kugel. Even though the two men are nominally on opposing sides of the issue, they have exactly the same logic, and reach the same neurotic conclusions. That isn’t the only great interaction—Kugel’s therapist helps give the book its title by explaining why hope ruins lives, and how only the world’s greatest optimist could believe in a “final solution” to anything.
Such absurdity seems impossible to take seriously, but Auslander manages the impressive trick of making the book seem literal just long enough to make the metaphors palatable. Likewise, Auslander’s supremely readable style and wicked humor make everything in the book go down easy, even when it’s morbid, absurd, offensive, or all three.