The Book of Mischief: New and Selected Stories
- Steve Stern
- Graywolf Press
- 371 pp.
- October 8, 2012
Infused with humor and pathos, these stories by a prize-winning writer re-create the vanished world of Jewish neighborhoods in the Depression era.
Reviewed by Susan P. Willens
In the last story in the collection The Book of Mischief by Steve Stern, a Jewish wedding in the Catskills gets seriously disrupted. A dybbuk, the rude spirit of a stand-up comic of yesteryear, inhabits the body of the bride, who erupts in Yiddish jokes and insults worthy of Henny Youngman or Sid Caesar. A nebbish teacher, wrapped in religious garb, saves the day, exorcizing the intruder and dooming himself to roaming the nether world.
Are you with me? Do you see where this writer gets his material? Can you hear an echo of the Borscht Belt?
In a throwback to a vanished world of Depression-era Jewish neighborhoods in Memphis and Brooklyn, Stern makes the extinct worlds live again. His hometown neighborhood of the Pinch in Memphis, where his father was a grocer, is his most comfortable setting, one in which everyone knows everyone but there is still room for magic.
In the Pinch, rabbis levitate, a dying man shuns the Angel of Death, a businessman is pressed into duty by an insistent God. In Yiddish-tinged language, Stern tells these tales with high seriousness. He convinces the reader of the humor, the pathos, sometimes the tragedy of the lives of his characters, erasing the time between their communities and ours.
The stories set in Europe dramatize shtetl life, the sexual awakening of a rabbinical student and a search for Kafka in Prague. In a stunning six-page story, "On Jacob's Ladder," the author pits a sadistic Nazi against a Jewish child at a concentration camp furnace. He welds intolerable pain and humiliation into a study of courage. In these tales, Stern forces his imagination out of the familiar into places he knows in his soul.
Steve Stern, who is not an observant Jew and calls Dickens one of his strongest influences, has written 12 novels and collections of stories. His work has won many literary prizes, including the O. Henry Award, the National Jewish Book Award and two Pushcart Prizes.
This volume contains 17 stories, of which six are new. The others have appeared in collections published from 1983 to 1999.
The Book of Mischief is a puzzle, immersed in a lost world, and still moving, funny and delicious.
Susan Willens, emerita professor of English at George Washington University, teaches at the Smithsonian Resident Associate Program, American University’s Lifelong Learning Institute and Politics and Prose bookstore.