You don’t have to be Jewish to enjoy Marty Elsant’s new collection of short stories, People Are Just NO DAMN GOOD!. Well, maybe one or two.
These seven polished stories are all informed by the author’s own experiences growing up as a Jewish American or by his wider interest in how the international community has fared through the turbulent 20th century, but their themes are universal and their characters will be familiar to anyone who isn’t dull enough to be ordinary.
“Being normal had a price, a very high price, and maybe as a Jew, I was just too cheap to pay it.”
Most of these stories involve characters struggling to do the right thing when that means sacrificing the comfortable position they’ve sought after, whether it’s an American rabbi protesting the government’s boycott of Israel or a child risking his fair-weather friends to support a fellow outcast. They’re not all set in bygone decades, but there’s no trace of shiny, modern distractions in these tales of conscience, adversity and faith that are nostalgic but never rose-tinted.
“Everyone needs a little meaningless dignity now and then.”
Because they are so short, the characters and situations are no more complicated than the stories need them to be. You’ll probably be disappointed if you like nuance and surprise in your fiction, but as morality tales, the lack of distinctive character quirks makes it easier to imagine yourself in their shoes and to ponder what you would have done.
There are only positive messages here, though the often-grim backdrops keep things firmly grounded in harsh reality – never more than in the non-fiction transcript of the author’s father recalling his encounters with Holocaust survivors. The scope of the other stories ranges from influential meetings with the president to the sort of comically low-key stakes that seem so important in childhood, as Elsant examines our better angels from multiple angles.