In "The Ghost and Saul Bozoff," the final tale of this luminous collection, Steve Stern's clearly autobiographical protagonist deflowers a nubile Yiddish-speaking ghost. Carnal relations with a spirit? But Leah Rosenthal, Saul's personal apparition--like the other supernatural creatures that inhabit this remarkable volume--is returned from a hearty Jewish past. She smells of chicken stock and parsley, but she can teach Saul a thing or two.
Stern's subject is the Jews of Memphis, Tenn., humble characters who have more in common with the Eastern European immigrants of the Lower East Side than with the intellectualized urbanites who, in part through their depiction in the pages of Philip Roth and Saul Bellow, have come to represent the modern American Jew. Indeed, Stern's fiction resembles most of all the bursting inventiveness of those artists who found their inspiration in the clash between traditional Eastern European Jewish life and 20th-Century ferment.
In one Stern tale, an oppressed young man harnesses a bunch of drunken pigeons--how they got that way is another story--and, none too sober himself, falls asleep. He awakes to discover himself floating high above the home he needs to escape, a moment of joy and amazement that calls to mind the airy visions of Marc Chagall. Another youngster summons untapped physical strength in order to avenge his bed-ridden grandmother, whose prized gramophone has been broken by his enterprising but cruel older brother. The conflict and its zany resolution are reminiscent of family scenes concocted by the great Russian-Yiddish writer, Moyshe Kulbak. Even the Southern flavor has its Yiddish analogue--through verse, to be sure--in I. J. Schwartz's gorgeously evocative epic poem, "Kentucky."
It would be unfair and incorrect, however, to imply that Stern's stories, or even their tone, are merely derivative. While they seem to hark back to a specific tradition, these tales are an entity unto themselves, a new link in the chain of Jewish fiction. This is not primarily because of their setting in the South. Of course, the images of the Pinch--North Main Street and the river below this Memphis Jewish neighborhood--are certainly not those of Vitebsk, Warsaw or New York. But if there is any validity to the notion that the culture of Eastern European Jewry and its far-flung outposts transcended geographical particularity, then it must be the author's unique imagination that makes the difference. This is certainly the case with "Lazar Malkin Enters Heaven."
Perhaps the most arresting quality of this work is the ease with which Stern moves between so-called reality and another space, no less earthy for its inclusion of ghosts, angels and even the voice of God. With sexy, purposeful ghosts and shabby, persistent angels who might as well be Depression door-to-door salesmen, with a God who sounds more like a nagging, old-fashioned dentist than the Almighty, the other world is a lot like this one. Nonetheless, these stories are dedicated to another vision of what is real, for the Pinch is a universe of action based on the inextricable relationship of past and present.
The central issue is the knowledge, anachronistically hinted at in the stories set in the era of World War II, that the Eastern European world that spawned the Pinch's inhabitants no longer exists. In its stead are resurrections, pale shadows--ghosts--of the original place. In Saul Bozoff's struggle with Leah Rosenthal, the vibrancy, hope, even the pain of the past, whether in Eastern Europe or in Memphis, may be integrated as knowledge and understanding, reappearing in a new context, as a reincarnation of previous experience.
"The Ghost and Saul Bozoff" concludes with the hero figuratively sitting on the lid of his creativity, incapable of containing the "hordes of wild Jewish daughters and horny cheder boys" who somehow manage to fly out from under his self-censorship. One trusts that Stern, having learned better, won't even contemplate stifling his dreamy brilliance.