Dinner at the Center of the Earth, by Nathan Englander, Knopf, 252 pages, $26.95
Reviewed by NEAL GENDLER
Nathan Englander again demonstrates his imaginative ability to turn seemingly straightforward stories into unexpected endings.
Englander, author of the hit For the Relief of Unbearable Urges, appears on his new novel’s jacket without the tsunami of hair he once sported. He’s a distinguished writer in residence at New York University who lives in Brooklyn.
His clever fourth book, Dinner at the Center of the Earth, sends the reader flitting among four plots, some with expected, likely endings and some quite unlikely.
Dinner opens in 2014 Israel with a three-page chapter understandable only after you’ve read the rest of the book.
The tale really begins in the next chapter, with a young guard watching “Z,” a solitary prisoner at a black site — one not on any maps — in the Negev in 2014. Z is a former American turned Israeli intelligence operative whose indiscretion blew his cover. His conscience-stricken reaction led to Israeli deaths. Supposedly, only the prime minister knows both who he is and where, a premise requiring a thinking reader’s suspension of disbelief.
The second and third plots are set in 2002. In Berlin, Farid, a Gazan, has become a successful importer and exporter. We see him sitting on a dock at — of all places — Lake Wannsee, where an Asian taught him to sail. Along comes Joshua, a Canadian businessman and inept sailor.
Farid decides to repay his teacher by teaching Joshua, and the two become friends on the lake and off. Joshua is living in a nearby rented estate complete with servants.
The third plot is set in Paris, where Z is hiding.
“By now, headquarters in Tel Aviv, and various bureaus around the world, have tallied a good part of the damage that he’s done, combing through the files he’s dumped, the operations he’s blown,” Z thinks. He’s sure Israeli agents are trying to capture or kill him.
On a furtive restaurant trip from his barren apartment, he is entranced by a waitress but at the same time spots a waiter who looks hostile, and who, after seeing Z, sends a quick text. On a later trip to a bookstore, he finds the waitress trying to reach a book on a high shelf. He retrieves it, he pays for it, they go for drinks and back to his apartment, where she moves in.
The fourth plot is set in Israel in 2014, where “The General” lies unresponsive after a stroke, attended daily by a nurse and Ruthi, his longtime devoted assistant. The General, unnamed but clearly Ariel Sharon, cannot communicate, but his mind keeps working, hallucinating and reviewing his army and political careers.
As we yo-yo back and forth among these plot lines, you know that Englander will tie them together — but how? Unless this is your first spy book, you can guess some of it, and more easily than in the title tale in Urges. Still, he creates unexpected twists including a clever, complicated entrapment of Z without causing an international incident.
I’m not going to spoil Englander’s work by revealing more. Once you get used to bouncing back and forth in time and place every few pages, Dinner commands your attention. Two complaints: One is calling the Kotel the distasteful “Wailing” — not Western — Wall. The other is when conversations have scanty attribution, sending you back to their start, tracking the paragraphs to figure out which person said what.
In one paragraph, about Hebrew University students, Englander creates a delightful word. Of course, he tells the waitress, the campus includes “the junior idiots and crackpots” who one day would “see their professional idiocies and crackpottitudes blossom.”
The book’s title is explained near the end, ahead of an astonishing, improbable occurrence that displays Englander’s imagination even as it exceeds the semi-credible to which some suspense-filled spy novels adhere.
Dinner is fascinating, but Englander appears less interested in keeping readers’ nerves on edge as in showing the sad futility of the continuing Arab-Israeli war and, without hammering home the point, Palestinian Arabs’ refusal to end it.
Neal Gendler is a Minneapolis writer and editor.