Seven reasons to read “The Twenty-seventh Man”

stalinNathan Englander’s, “The Twenty-seventh Man,” the story of the house arrest and execution of a group of poets and writers in Stalinist Russia, is one of the best pieces of fiction I’ve read in years.

Here are seven reasons why you should read “The Twenty-seventh Man,” which you can find in For The Relief of Unbearable Urges, Englander’s startling debut collection.

1. A minor bureaucratic error leads an unpublished writer (the 27th) to find his readership seconds before his death.

2. Most of the story takes place in a single cell with only four men, and yet you feel the presence of the other 23 because Englander doesn’t let you forget them.

3. Englander illustrates the obsessive passion of writers. The 27th man composes a story in his mind, which he completes and recounts to his colleagues only moments before their execution.

4. A literary symposia takes place in the cell in which arguments about the state of literature in Russia eclipse the poets and writers’ self-interest and survival instinct.

5. Englander is a pre-modernist (my term). He’s a good storyteller whose prose is ample, and characters deeply sympathetic.

6. One of Englander’s characters drinks and fornicates with abandon and when he cleans up uses the DT’s and his remorse to fuel his poetry. Another character is so pious he thinks the state has arrested him because he possesses a deck of girly playing cards.

7. Englander knows his history and he knows people. In “The Twenty-seventh Man,” he shows the transcendent power of art and humanity in the face of evil and extreme ignorance.  

Give the story a read, then read “The Tumblers,” the second in the collection. It’s almost as good.


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