It's tempting to describe the theme of Shalom Auslander's debut short-story collection Beware Of God in terms of a Joan Osborne lyric: "What if God was one of us?" Many of the anthology's 14 brief entries display God in a decidedly sub-divine light, as an ordinary working stiff, an attention-seeking nudzh, an asshole CEO, or even a giant chicken. But Auslander's theme extends a little further: His stories aren't just about God, they're about how people relate to Him as an entity and a concept, and how their hopes, fears, and especially shame warp their beliefs beyond recognition.
Most of Auslander's stories are darkly comic and colorful, but he often uses surrealism to distance himself from real people and real beliefs, in order to comment on the distorted power of faith without directly attacking any specific faithful. In "Somebody Up There Likes You," for instance, the survivor of a horrific car wreck rediscovers inner peace at his local synagogue, even as a swearing, crabby God tools around town with Death and Lucifer, attempting to restore cosmic balance by assassinating him. "It Ain't Easy Bein' Supremey" focuses on a man who creates two golem servants, which initially make his life better, until they start fighting and splitting hairs over his commands. "Waiting For Joe" turns two hamsters into combative theologians, as they argue about the proper way to worship their absent owner in order to end his neglect. In each case, a religion becomes an end in itself, utterly disassociated from its deity, and the would-be worshipers get so caught up in their expectations that they utterly miss the reality.
Auslander also deals heavily in religious guilt, with stories about a couple who duel over sinful behavior, a compulsive masturbator whose dog becomes the voice of accusatory judgment, a chimpanzee who simultaneously achieves enlightenment and despair, and a "prophet" whose relationship with a nagging God poisons his life. Sometimes God is present in these stories and sometimes it's just the thought of divine retribution that makes people nervous, but again, religion is more a burden than a salvation.
Sometimes Auslander gets a bit too precious with his allegories: A story in which Peanuts characters violently separate into Schulzians and Pumpkinites, the God-is-a-chicken yarn, and the Franz Kafka pastiche "The Metamorphosis," in which a Jew wakes up "transformed in his bed into a very large goy," all use extreme absurdism to reach too-obvious points. But Beware Of God hits its high mark with "Holocaust Tips For Kids," written from the point of view of a Jewish boy who's been thoroughly steeped in Holocaust lore and has developed a detailed and touchingly naïve escape plan should it all happen again. Auslander is a clever, sharp writer, and while his cynicism ranges from refreshing to overbearing, it can be enlightening in either mode. But in his better stories, he clearly illustrates how people let beliefs get in the way of understanding, and at his absolute best, he shows how much emotional harm that lack of understanding can cause.