In "Bad Jews and Other Stories'' (Zoland, $24), Gerald Shapiro has managed the almost impossible task of making disease and death the subject of humor.
Shifman, the protagonist in two of the stories, has Hodgkin's disease and is often bedridden. The mother of museum publicist Elliot Suskind is dying in a hospital. Marketing impresario Leo Spivak -- who appears in several stories -- flies to Arizona for his father's funeral.
This might sound like material for a TV soap opera, but in Shapiro's hands, it is quite the contrary. He is capable of breathing life into a corpse, as he surrounds his protagonists with droll characters who could have come from Sholom Aleichem's shtetl or from Spanish picaresca.
While Shifman is fighting cancer, his parents are in Europe ''on a lively tour of concentration camps.'' His brother complains that the physician told Shifman the truth about his disease, instead of telling only the next of kin ''so that we could lie to you -- you know, keep your spirits up.'' And his roommate dreams that his daughter will marry someone ''who has all his limbs'' (she falls in love only with amputees, you see).
Only hours after his mother's death, Suskind inadvertently attends an orgy and ends up with a punch in the nose and his job in jeopardy.
Spivak, trying to have good memories of his father, who always considered him a ''jerk,'' interrupts the funeral service to recall one of his kind gestures.
Shapiro's favorite subjects also include foundations and religion. Kenneth Rosenthal, a painter, learns that he was awarded the Kissner Prize ''devoted to supporting the work of unknown visual artists who are of interest and significance to the American Jew.'' Rosenthal has won for his painting ''The Twelve Plagues,'' in which has extended the Ten Plagues to include ''call waiting'' and ''lack of available parking.''
Rosenthal later learns about a 13th plague: meeting the prize donors. They accuse him of being ''a self-hating Jew'' whose painting mocks Judaism. He is consoled by a woman who tells him: ''But they are donors, dear boy. The donors! They bought the right to beat you up a little. Why do you think people give money for prizes?''
The ''bad Jews'' in Shapiro's stories are beaten once and again, but are never defeated. Even their religion, or their lack of one, helps them continue fighting for their lives. Rosenthal could be seen as the model agnostic Jew, ''an ardent nonbeliever so consumed by his lack of faith that it amounted to a kind of devotion.''
Only a few characters succeed in life. But they continue trying, possibly following the cue of psychoanalyst Theodore Reik, who said: ''Jews are ruined by success and rescued by failure.''
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