September 2012

Walter Biggins

fiction

The Book of Mischief: New and Selected Stories by Steve Stern

Joann Sfar, a French cartoonist, draws with a wavering, loose-limbed line that is almost sketch-like, more akin to handwriting than fine illustration. His characters, buildings, and even riotous color schemes seem unstable, as if the panels could fly off the page or change shape even as we look at them. This feeling extends to his narratives, which veer from realism to fantasy to flat out absurdity, often within the same page, so much so that his stories usually begin in very different places -- and tones -- from where they end. Sfar dips from a well of Jewish experience that is deep and nourishing: folktales (Ashkenazi and Sephardic), European Jewish legends, klezmer music, Talmudic scholarship, Borscht Belt comedy of the Catskills, vaudeville, histories, biographies, and his own autobiography. Even some of the titles give a sense of Sfar's Jewishness: The Rabbi's Cat, Klezmer: Tales of the Wild East.

Because Sfar throws all this into the pot, his comics tend to fuse the realistic with the fantastic, sometimes on the same page. Golems talk with Jewish scholars, and vampires romance actual women. His stories turn on a dime, and then turn again. It's not until finishing his stories, and then reflecting, that I notice Sfar's patterns and the dream logic that make his comics make sense. Reading them doesn't seem like reading incoherent hodgepodges, and indeed they are not. Protagonists in one comic make cameos in another. Characters refer to other Sfar characters, and events are recreated -- from a different point of view -- from one tale to the next. Often, his page layouts follow an orderly, unchanging design. The beginning of a joke, started on page two, finds its punch line on page forty-eight. He's created a universe; to understand it fully, you must read lots of Sfar, and he's a prolific artist.

Sfar probably doesn't have a direct peer in comics, as far as I can tell. He's sui generis. I do think, however, that Sfar would make fast friends, over coffee and slivovitz, with Steve Stern. Stern's novels, novellas, and short stories mine much of the same territory, with much of the same heedless rush of heady language and comic brio as Sfar's cartoons. Stern's prose fuses the magical and the mundane, with an offhandedness that makes the normal seem odd, and the truly odd seem matter of fact.

The Book of Mischief: New and Selected Stories brings together seventeen tales, divided into four sections: "North Main Street, Memphis," "The Lower East Side, New York," "Europe," and "The Catskills." The latter three, of course, have long been associated with Jewish culture. The first section, however, is the longest -- nearly half the volume -- and most mesmerizing, and most surprising. Memphis is Stern's hometown, and it's clear the South holds a special resonance for him. His novels The Frozen Rabbi (2010) and Harry Kaplan's Adventures Underground (1991) are all set in Memphis, as is his collection of novellas, A Plague of Dreamers (1997).

In Stern's Memphis, his nebbishes, wallflowers, outcasts, and loners -- he's not one for well-adjusted characters -- try desperately to make it as "true Americans." Making it, of course, means casting aside the inconvenient residue of Jewish tradition, especially superstition. It's precisely this superstition, redolent of the myths and ghouls that scare the gentiles, that pops up over and over in these stories, usually to cause embarrassment or at least annoyance. Angels, golems, and demons show up regularly, often narrating the stories (as in "The Sin of Elijah," set in New York) or becoming lead characters (as in "Aaron Makes a Match," set in Memphis). Everyday characters become imbued with magical qualities, usually to their chagrin.

The first story, "The Tale of a Kite," features an old rabbi who can fly. His young students adore him and, in the midst of urban Memphis, desire to go back to their roots. "Going native," however, angers their parents, who see the flying Rabbi Shmelke as a threat to friendly relations with Boss Crump, who ran the city in the 1930s and 1940s. In "Shimmele Fly-by-Night," an overtly kosher butcher is such a stickler for the Book that his wife and daughter flee out of the Jewish neighborhood of the Pinch into greater -- and goyish -- Memphis, and his son Shimmele literally flies away, tied to birds. "Lazar Malkin Enters Heaven" features a title character who refuses to just die of extreme old age, even fighting against the Angel of Death to stay alive, which annoys his family. No matter how modernizing these Jews get, how accommodating they are to the mainstream, there's some Old World Jew clinging to their coattails, reminding them of where they came from or who they are. The old argues with the new, constantly, in The Book of Mischief.

It's an argumentative bunch, and Stern shines in his dialogue. The talk is barbed and slangy, sexy and streetwise. Characters don't compliment when they can instead insult. Double entendres are rife, and I'm betting if I knew Yiddish, they'd be triple entendres. Stern can't resist a pun or a dirty joke. "The Wedding Jester," the book's final story, features a bride who gets possessed by a long-dead and forgotten Jewish comedian. "You got to love a wedding," he says. "I'm strutting my stuff in the buff in front of my new wife: 'Look by me,' I say, 'one hundred fifty pounds pure dynamite!' 'That's right,' says the wife, 'and with a three-inch fuse.'" Rim shot. He's here all weekend, folks.

It's not all hijinks and low humor. Two of the most effective stories, "The Ballad of Mushie Momzer" and "Legend of the Lost," are the bleakest, tales of protagonists who -- unexpectedly but matter-of-factly -- become violent, crazed sociopaths. "Legend of the Lost," in particular, begins with a nebbish who bungee-jumps to appease his girlfriend; in thirty pages, he becomes a horribly disfigured drug kingpin of Memphis, a horrifying killing machine for Israeli radicals, and ultimately one of the few survivors of Earth's apocalypse. It's a scary history of the world's destruction, condensed to a story. "On Jacob's Ladder" tells of a young boy, forced to clean the smokestacks of an Auschwitz crematorium, who finds the skeleton of an angel deep in a chimney. In "Heaven Is Full of Windows," a tenement fire reigns down death and wasted dreams upon a poor immigrant seamstress.

Even at his funniest, Stern fills his stories with a central conflict: His Jews have one foot in the tradition, folklore, and superstition of the Old World, and one in the modern, streetwise, and cynical present. They're at war with themselves -- they want, impossibly, to belong to their families and communities, but only on their own individualistic terms. The collision of cultures, dreams, tones, and traditions means that his characters are rarely satisfied, never settled, and usually ill at ease. They reek of gefilte fish and herring but they want, sometimes despite themselves, the taste of ham hocks and bacon, too. Sating that desire is a form of sorrow and liberation all at once.

The Book of Mischief: New and Selected Stories by Steve Stern
Graywolf Press
ISBN: 978-1555976217
384 pages