Don't believe everything you read

In Steve Stern’s new novel ‘The Pinch,’ his version of Memphis is starting to catch on.

Steve Stern (photo credit: SABRINA JONES)
Steve Stern
(photo credit: SABRINA JONES)
Steve Stern likes to disarm his readers.
One is never quite sure whether the mystical flights and descents of the holy Shpinker Rebbe, Eliakum ben Yahya, and his coterie of hangers-on, the tightrope-walking of a heroine, a boy swallowed whole by a fish and the manic graphomania of a hero and writer should be taken as satire, allegory, magical realism or all of the above.
In his newest novel The Pinch, based in the Memphis neighborhood well-known to fans of his earlier work, Stern plays with the idea of life and text, reality and illusion, creation and destruction, big manic themes experienced by the Jewish, African- American and Ku Klux Klan members of the small, ever-dying neighborhood the author has made his own patch of sacred ground zero for his fables and the foibles of his characters.
And to disarm critics. He makes sure we can’t get to him, writing things like this to take away any sting that might have been planned: “It didn’t happen overnight, but against all reasonable expectation Muni’s [a character in a book also called ‘The Pinch’ in Stern’s book of the same name] book struck a chord with the reading public. There was, apparently, still a reading public. The reviews, such as they were, were mixed: the favorable, perhaps influenced by the psychedelic ethos of the day, praised the kaleidoscopic nature of the narrative. Some said it evoked a kind of folk consciousness, and even delighted in the book’s refusal to conform to a specific genre.
“Soberer judgments – and these were in the majority – suggested that The Pinch was the product of a puerile sensibility, and dismissed it out of hand. There were those, too, who complained that the surplus of ‘tribal’ content was off-putting and exclusive.
“But somehow, a gradual groundswell of word-of-mouth sentiment began to create a stir in various quarters, and the book – like an awkward dance step that turns out to be liberating – started to catch on.”
Sorry, Mr. Stern, much as you fear it with your constant self-deprecations, I am giving you a positive review. The awkward dance step has caught on for this reader, with the exception of one or two subplots, but in a book that takes place over a half century in a sprawling neighborhood, it is to be expected.
Now that we’re done with that, we can tell readers what’s to like. For one, the lovely Yiddish-inflected English of Avrom Slutsky, proprietor of the Book Asylum (in both senses of the word, as in haven and loony bin), The Pinch’s all-purpose bookstore. Slutsky tells his assistant in his opening statement, “So don’t believe everything you read.”
The warning comes in relation to a book called The Pinch, which the assistant opens only to find… he is a character in a book written before his birth! This turns out to be less a gimmick than the informing principle of the work, namely that writing has the power to create worlds and control fates.
For Lenny – who lives in the neighborhood during the fateful sanitation workers’ strike in 1968, which Dr. Martin Luther King came to assist with and was then assassinated – the book gives him a chance to read “with that intensity that obliterated the distinction between being inside and outside the book. “ In addition to his labors at the Book Asylum, Lenny delivers the psychedelic products procured by his landlord, which gain him entrée into the world of bars and bands, such as Velveeta and the Psychopimps, and their leader Elder Lincoln.
His main concern is pursuing a girl, the engaged Rachel Ostrofsky, slumming in Memphis “on a grant from the MidSouth Folklore Center to research the roots of the Southern Jewish community.”
But the world of the book Lenny reads, The Pinch, contains the story of Muni Pinsker, who escapes from a Siberian prison to come work for his uncle Pinchas in The Pinch, and falls in love with a young lady who walks a tightrope at night. Their love proves so passionate that… well, it is hard to summarize but it moves the earth, let’s keep it at that.
And Pinchas loves his Irish wife, Katie Keough, so much he goes with Rabbi Eliakum ben Yahya to the underworld to retrieve her ghost, and enables Katie’s ghost to give birth to a son, Tyrone, who becomes the illustrator of Muni Pinsker’s book. And Tyrone, as an American sent to Europe during the cataclysm of World War II, meets Slutsky – when he liberates the camp the future bookstore owner has been interned in. And Slutsky is so fascinated with Tyrone’s stories that he makes his way to The Pinch, where he is in place to give Lenny the book about himself.
In the world of this work are stories of circuses and camps (concentration that is), wonder rabbis and Irish drunks, a musician who “reads the stripes on the backs of former slaves and makes from them his musical compositions,” as well as the rockers and druggies of the 1960s.
It is a populous world, but one that hangs together with the act of Lenny’s reading, since as he reads, “I was conscious of also approaching a rendezvous with myself.”
“In the beginning was the book,” Stern writes in the opening sentence. Genesis it’s not, but despite authorial warnings, the text has its own power, that of the imagination to create a parallel universe high above the quotidian one most of us inhabit.
But don’t believe everything you read – open the book for yourself.