Englander’s ‘Dinner’ weaves fine writing with unsteady tone

A prisoner is held for more than a decade in the Israeli desert while, elsewhere, a general in a coma hallucinates about his past life and a young man works to fund the Palestinian resistance in Nathan Englander’s “Dinner at the Center of the Earth.”

Englander’s (“What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank,” 2012) latest novel is an odd amalgam: part political thriller, part romance, part absurdist farce, it never quite settles into the story it wants to tell. First, there’s Prisoner Z, who’s been held for 12 years in an undisclosed location in Israel’s Negev Desert. His only human contact has been with his guard. Then, there are flashbacks to Prisoner Z’s time hiding out in Paris. An American intelligence operative, he’s compromised Israeli secrets, and the authorities have it in for him. In the meantime, he starts up a romance with a waitress and they dash around Europe together. There’s also the General, an infamous Israeli leader who’s been in a coma for years; Ruthi, the General’s former assistant and current caretaker; Ruthi’s son, who happens to serve as Prisoner Z’s guard; and Farid, a young Palestinian in Berlin who’s working to fund his brother’s anti-settlement activities. Chapters alternate among these various threads. Unfortunately, Englander fails to fully weave them together. His tone is uneven — sometimes he strains toward humor, sometimes toward drama, without quite reaching either one. The humor sags, and the political intrigue doesn’t quite add up. If it’s a farce, it’s an uneasy one. Toward the end, Englander introduces a second romance, and this one feels rushed, tacked on like a donkey’s tail. Still, there are moments of fine writing throughout.

“Dinner” is an uneasy blend of political intrigue, absurdity, and romance struggles to establish a steady, never mind believable, tone.

(Englander will speak and sign copies of his book starting at 5 p.m. Sept. 17 at BookPeople. Free to attend; only books purchased at BookPeople are eligible for signing. Information: bookpeople.com.)

Like a challenge?

The births of two babies and the consequent lynching of a black man launch Eleanor Henderson’s (“Ten Thousand Saints,” 2011) “The Twelve-Mile Straight,” a grim investigation into the fractures of race, class and family in rural Georgia.

Pink little Winnafred and brown Wilson are born in the summer of 1930, allegedly the twin offspring of 18-year-old Elma Jesup, whose father, Juke, accuses field hand Genus Jackson of raping her. Elma reluctantly confirms this, and her fiance, Freddie Wilson, helps Juke string up Genus and then skips town. Wealthy George Wilson is furious with Juke for letting his grandson take the blame — not that anyone wants to bring the lynchers to justice — and is suspicious about these “Gemini twins.” Indeed, we hear very soon that Wilson was fathered by Juke with Nan, the Jesups’ 14-year-old African-American servant. Juke forces the two girls into this absurd deception for reasons that are somewhat obscure until Henderson’s tangled saga has unreeled a good deal farther into the year 1931 and back into a past that includes abuse and violence galore. The details are baroque but appropriate to the epically unjust society scathingly depicted. The reign of terror under which African-Americans live takes perhaps its most appalling form in the stories of Nan and her mother, both forced into long-term sexual subjugation by white men, but Elma and the white girls who work at George Wilson’s cotton mill are hardly better off. Juke, in Henderson’s most multifaceted and terrifying portrait, clings to the prerogatives of race and gender to hide from himself the fact that he’s just trash in the eyes of men like George Wilson, who hold the real power in the South. Despite Henderson’s evident compassion for her characters, she gives them hardly a moment of grace from the dark opening to the brutal denouement, which makes the tentatively hopeful epilogue somewhat difficult to credit.

This is strong medicine, not always easy to swallow, but readers who like a challenge will relish this gifted writer’s ambition and grit.

(Henderson will speak and sign copies of her book starting at 7 p.m. Sept. 22 at BookPeople. Free to attend; only books purchased at BookPeople are eligible for signing. Information: bookpeople.com.)

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