Short, gripping tales in ‘No Other’

Short, gripping tales in ‘No Other’

In 2002, Jonathan Papernick, a Torontonian who now lives in the Boston area where he teaches writing at Emerson College, published a collection of seven cryptically comic short stories in a book called “The Ascent of Eli Israel and Other Stories.” Based partly on Papernick’s experience as a freelance journalist in Israel just after the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, the stories featured the “Jerusalem Syndrome” in which visitors to Israel display psychotic behavior. Partly because of his insight into this phenomenon as well as his understanding of both Israeli and Muslim cultures, the publication was well received, earning a starred review in Publishers Weekly.
In 2007, Papernick wrote his first novel, “Who By Fire, Who By Blood,” which dealt with right-wing Jewish nationalists. Somewhat melodramatically, the story describes what happened when a son learns about his recently deceased father’s support for pro-Israel terrorist activities. Once again, Papernick’s sharp perceptions and writing talent were on display.
With this new book, “There Is No Other,” Papernick returns to the short story, presenting nine gripping and powerful illustrations of his first-rate artistry, demonstrating his command over this format. The short story is a relatively brief fictional narrative in prose. Firm and formal in its construction and development, the short story requires craftsmanship and skill, attributes fully demonstrated in Papernick’s first book and again in this one. Although his novel generally succeeded in maintaining the reader’s interest, it may well be that Papernick’s talents are more suited to the short story genre.     
The story that gives the book its title takes place at Purim in the seventh- grade classroom of a New York Jewish day school. The students are all wearing costumes with one named Junius dressed in flowing robes as the prophet Mohammed. He is the dark-skinned son of a Haitian father and a Jewish mother. A constant source of trouble, he reaches a climax on this day by displaying explosives wired to a detonator under his robe. The impact on his teacher and fellow students is terrifying.
Also dealing with students is the opening story, “Skin for Skin,” in which a Jewish girl makes a startling demand of her non-Jewish suitor. These two stories as well as a number of others in the collection feature the dramatic conclusion, originally made famous by O. Henry, who was well-known for his surprise endings. However, Papernick does not invariably follow this formula, as demonstrated by the two longest stories in the book, “The Miracle of Birth,” set in Israel, and “The Madonna of Temple Beth Elohim,” which takes place in the Boston area. The second of these two stories reflects Papernick’s interest in religious zealotry.
The variety of formats and sites attests to Papernick’s skill. Each of these stories, whether long or short, taking place in Israel, Canada or the United States, clutches the reader’s interest and shows Papernick’s unusual ability to create fascinating characters and plots whose memory will linger long after the book is set down.
(Dr. Morton I. Teicher is the founding dean, Wurzweiler School of Social Work, Yeshiva University and dean eemeritus, School of Social Work, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.)