Great Expectations

Seven years after his debut, the award-winning story collection "For the Relief of Unbearable Urges," Nathan Englander has finally published a second book. His publisher must be relieved that it's a novel. Even readers who end up not liking "The Ministry of Special Cases" ought at least to admire Englander's good sense. After a $350,000 advance for your first book, followed by awed reviews comparing you to [deep breath] Roth, Bellow, Joyce, Kafka, Cheever, Gogol, Chekhov and Singer, any writer would be tempted to swing for the fences. Would a 1,500-page novel that linked, oh, say, Bobby Thomson's home run, Lee Harvey Oswald, Mason and Dixon, Joseph of Arimathea and Heisenberg's uncertainty principle—all narrated by a hermaphrodite—be enough to impress that mob of long-awaiters and knife-whetters?

"The Ministry of Special Cases" is merely a wonderful medium-length novel, set in mid-1970s Buenos Aires during the "dirty war," when Argentina's military dictatorship "disappeared" tens of thousands of people, dissidents, suspected dissidents and citizens in the wrong place at the wrong time. Since much of the book's power comes from its relentlessly unfolding plot, it's not fair even to tell who disappears, let alone whether that person reappears. But we can reveal that Englander ties together material nearly as heterogeneous as that hypothetical blockbuster he didn't write. [Deep breath.] A defunct community of Jewish pimps and prostitutes, whose graves are walled off from the respectable part of the cemetery, and whose descendants want the very names (Talmud Harry, Shlomo the Pin) chiseled off the tombstones. A prostitute's son who makes a living doing this. A nose job gone wrong. A nose job gone right. Burned books, a stolen baby, still-living people thrown out of airplanes, horrific tortures. And, most prominently, two people whose love and loyalty get tested beyond what they could have imagined—and pass that test in completely opposite ways.

Englander maintains an undertone of quirky comedy almost to the end of his story: the recipients of the nose jobs, for instance, reluctantly accept them in lieu of money from a plastic surgeon with a gambling habit. Such apparent inappropriateness seems like a throwback to the black humor of such '60s novels as Joseph Heller's "Catch-22," in which comic absurdity merges with the unfaceable and the unbearable. But behind Heller, Roth and others of that generation—you might throw in Mel Brooks, too—stood Kafka: the poet of the absolutely impossible. Englander's Ministry of Special Cases, as the name suggests, is an archetypal Kafka bureaucracy, staffed by eccentric, enigmatic functionaries, which exists to turn supplicants away. A couple approaches an official napping at his desk (which is in a corridor, not an office), asks for directions to room 264 and finds the room locked. They come back and tell the man, "No one answers the door." "Of course not," the man says, "it's my office and I'm sitting here."

Englander makes his tour of hell fun for as long as he decently can before breaking the bad news: there's no exit. So what's the good news? That we can stay human longer than seems humanly possible, and that a good writer can at least make the screaming sing.