Stern's short stories nothing short of magical

Published 12:00 am Monday, September 17, 2012

“The Book of Mischief,” by Steve Stern. Graywolf Press. 2012. $26. Ebook available.
By Deal Safrit
For the Salisbury Post
SALISBURY – Memphis, Tenn., native Steve Stern last graced the world with a collection of stories in 1999 with “The Wedding Jester,” which went on to win the National Jewish Book Award in 2000. For his long-time readers, and for those who are always searching for another unique, outstanding collection of stories, the long wait is over with the September publication of Stern’s “The Book of Mischief” by Graywolf Press.
A collection of 17 stories, “The Book of Mischief” includes six new stories as well as 11 others that were included in previous collections dating from 1983 through 1999. Even if you have Stern’s previous collections, the six new stories, classic Stern, make this book worth its weight in gold; having extra copies of Steve Stern stories on the shelf is never a bad thing. If this is your first Stern book, prepare yourself for a rollicking good time now, and every time you go back to read them in the future.
“The Book of Mischief” is divided into four sections according to the locations of the stories, those being North Main Street in Memphis, the Lower East Side in New York, Europe and the Catskills. The Memphis stories comprise the largest group and also the greatest number that have been included in other publications. For the most part, the Memphis stories are set along North Main Street in the area known as The Pinch, which between 1890 and 1930 in particular was heavily populated by Orthodox Jews and was once considered the South’s Lower East Side. Later, after World War II, much of the Jewish population migrated out of the area and The Pinch became a victim of urban renewal and highway construction, in effect destroying its significance.
In “The Tale of a Kite,” Rabbi Shmelke of the radical Hasidic sect that has taken up residence among the Orthodox is exposed when young Ziggy reports to his father “Papa, Rabbi Shmelke can fly!” Thus begins a tale wherein the flying Rabbi appeals to more and more of the young, more people become offended and enraged, and a truly flighty chain of events transpires.
In “Lazar Malkin Enters Heaven,” Lazar moves into the garden shed of this daughter and son-in-law, where he is dying and yet refuses death. Eventually, he has a direct face-off with the Angel of Death and you, the reader, get to guess who wins.
I think my favorite of the Memphis stories is the hilarious “The Lord and Martin Gruber.” Were it not for the fact that this story was published several years after, I would swear it was the inspiration for the George Burns film “Oh, God.” However, “The Lord and Martin Gruber” is the funnier, and the more meaningful, of the two.
There are four stories set on New York’s Lower East Side, my favorite being “Avigdor of the Apes.” Avigdor as a young man is so impressed upon reading “Tarzan” that he decides to take to the rooftops and traverse first the neighborhood, and then larger portions of the city, from well above ground level, using everything from clotheslines, to ladders, to homemade pole vaults, to keep off the ground. Though, as one would expect, Avigdor eventually meets with disaster, his passion lurks within him throughout his life, through marriage, work and into retirement, at which point he returns to his pursuit to escape the meaningless, grounded world.
“Heaven Is Full of Windows” is a very short, but eerily meaningful, story of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire which occurred on March 25, 1911, and was the deadliest industrial fire to strike New York City at that time. At only four pages long, it may be the best single synopsis of the Triangle horror I have ever read.
The four Europe stories traverse a wide range of time periods, from Shtetl life to the death camps of World War II. The final chapter is the one Catskills story, a reprint of “The Wedding Jester.”
Stern builds his stories around classic Yiddish folktales, more contemporary folktales which he became familiar with while growing up and later working in Tennessee, his intimate firsthand knowledge of the settings of the stories, and his own experiences. He writes with a familiarity of the culture which is a combination of learned and innate. His work can be favorably compared to some of the writing of Isaac Bashevis Singer, Isaac Babel (more specifically his “Odessa Tales”), and Sholem Asch, though I think of Asch as being much better known for his novels than his stories.
Stern writes in a rarified genre, and he has no contemporaries, at least in the United States, to which he can be directly compared. Thus, he is, in this country at least, almost single-handedly carrying on a writing tradition that perhaps began as early as 1382, with “Virtuous Joseph” (author unknown), but certainly by the 1500s, when Zalman Sofer and Zalman Khasak were writing. There are a plethora of contemporary Jewish writers in the U.S., but none which write what Stern writes. And, not that there aren’t Jewish writers around the world writing short stories, at least some of them based on Yiddish folklore. Certainly, Canada had Yehuda Elberg, who died in 2003, and Chava Rosenfarb, who died in 2011, both writing stories of Yiddish folklore. Yet, and specifically, to my knowledge, Stern is the only author of short stories, with Yiddish folktale theme, to use the setting of Memphis, Tenn. As far as I know, he and Tova Mirvis are the only contemporary Jewish writers to set any of their work in Memphis, though Mirvis’ novels are set well after The Pinch years and have nothing to do with folklore.
I can do nothing but praise Steve Stern and “The Book of Mischief.” It is a treat to read, to be transported via his magical realism across the Yiddish folklore, to rest one’s weary soul within The Pinch of bygone Memphis amidst the ribald goings on, to observe from afar the Lower East Side of New York in its heyday. Where other writers can take you, Stern can spirit you, and you don’t even have to wake up to return from where you are, because you didn’t get there in a dream. You got there at Stern’s hand.