Steve Stern, author of the collection of three novellas, A Plague of Dreamers, autographed my copy thusly:
Translated: “To Tom. I wrote this. So sue me. Best, Steve.”
The greatest inscription I own and indicative of Mr. Stern’s self-effacing charm and wit.
This book is a treausure. To find three novellas by one writer in a single collection is one thing, but to find each one better than the next and filled with a unique blend of Isaac Singer and Garcia Marquez, along with language so fine and so full of verve and vigor? And to have it all set mostly in one of my favorite American cities, Memphis, Tennessee, in the Pinch? My only complaint is that I didn’t read it until I was in my thirties.
(Side note here for anyone who doubts the efficacy of a good creative writing program. Steve Stern graduated with his MFA from the University of Arkansas; he attended the program alongside some of the following: Jack Butler, Barry Hannah, Lee K. Abbott, Lewis Nordan, Steve Yarbrough, John Dufresne, Ellen Gilchrist. Need I say more?)
(Side note two for anyone who doubts the value of teaching as a profession for a writer: Steven Millhauser–to whom this book is dedicated–and Steve Stern have been longtime colleagues at Skidmore College–you think a little cross-pollination didn’t happen between these two mighty minds?)
These three novellas–“Zelik Rifkin and the Tree of Dreams”; “Hyman the Magnificent”; “The Annals of the Kabakoffs” (my favorite)–all transpire in the same Memphis neighborhood, The Pinch, with recurring monuments and passersby showing up in all three. To some, the contrast of Jewish characters in Elvis’s hometown (and Rufus Thomas’s and Booker T’s and Alex Chilton’s) might alone seem magical enough, but the levity of Stern’s plots is anchored in his minaturist’s evocation of reality. The Pinch is still there in Memphis, just leave Beale and Midtown for North Main, past the Pyramid, but it’s no longer what it was during the time of these stories. On the page, though, this place is bustling, riotous, alive. Thanks, Steve, for that.
But the magic only starts there with the setting. I have long wondered whether the Steves (Millhauser and Stern) were working simultaneously on “Eisenheim the Illusionist” and “Hyman the Magnificent” at or around the same time, though Stern’s Hyman is more about collosssal failures than successes. I have also long wondered why there is no film version of “Zelik Rifkin” and “Annals,” as each offers a director both compelling story, complex character, and fever dream fantasy (Hey, Tim Burton) that could scorch the screen.
I love all three of these novellas but the one that doesn’t cease to astonish is “Annals,” a novella that stretches the form about as far as it can go by inerpolating the stories of the black sheep son, Isaac (wonderfully nicknamed Itchy), the purportedly departed Moses (mortally undone by ill timed and audible flatulence), and the immigrant Yankel. Combine Itchy’s exploration of the Delta as a carny (“zigzagging back and forth across the river, making stops at Stringtown, Dumas, Tallulah, Bewelcome”), Moses upstanding and down and dirty lives, with Yankel’s transportation of Eastern Europe to North Main Memphis, and some deft juggling of chronology, and you have what I think is the most astonishing kind of work. “Make it new,” hell. Steve Stern makes it here. Just plain invents a genre practically.
Not long after the fiasco of his half sister’s wedding, Itchy Kabakoff began to remember his grandfather’s stories. They came back to him at odd moments following his father’s leap from the Harahan Bridge, by which route the City of Fun had left town that very dawn. It was still dark out, a plum purple sky in the west, as the carnival convoy crossed over the river to Arkansas. But the bridge–Itchy’d seen it all from the cab of the truck he rode in–was lurid with spinning red lights, a circle of squad cars having surrounded a bottle green Continental.
As a Steve Stern fan, I”m in excellent company, as I know Dan Wickett and Corey Mesler are Stern fans, too–two of his biggest and most devoted.
But I could quote whole pages, this book is so good. The writing is so sharp, cinematic, lush, each sentence brimming with story. It’s a book you could just open up at random and you’d read from that page until the end, it’s so beguiling.
Coming up soon, as we end this novella month–titles I can’t believe I’ve overlooked, and three more novellas without which celebration of the novella just wouldn’t be complete.