Author Archives: Sanford Pinsker

About Sanford Pinsker

Sanford Pinsker is an emeritus professor of English at Franklin and Marshall College. He writes widely about Jewish literature and culture, and in recent years has been a judge for the Edward Lewis Wallant Prize, the Reform Judaism Prize, and the National Jewish Book Award.

Steve Stern

Reprinted with permission from

By all the laws of literary logic, Steve Stern’s psychic excavations of old-time Memphis ought not to exist. But exist they do–and in ways that his growing number of readers recognize like a thumbprint. Why so? Because Stern gives magical realism new possibilities, ones that, by crafty increments and sentences to die for, transform the ordinary into the miraculous.

Stern is equally comfortable in a wide variety of genres–the novel, novella, short story, and children’s fiction–but he operates at his best within the canvas of a short story. In roughly the same way that figures in a Chagall painting float over shtetl rooftops, Stern’s characters suggest a poignant immediacy that depends, in part, on brevity. The result is stories in which virtually anything can happen–and usually does.

Stern cut his imaginative teeth as a folklorist (in 1983, he served as director of the Center for Southern Folklore’s Ethnic Heritage Program), and the Yiddish oral histories he transcribed as part of his work began to reassemble themselves in his mind. Thus it was that the Pinch District (Memphis’ Old Jewish section) "rose up," in Stern’s words, "like the Lost Continent of Atlantis for me and began to look like a home for my stories." The result is at once a haunting memory and an intimation of the entirely new–for Stern so blends the surface detail of what was with infusions of the fantastic that it is often difficult to know where accuracy ends and magical realism begins. As one character puts it: "It’s like…being awake in your dreams."

The Wedding Jester brings nine of Stern’s most accomplished stories between paperback covers. Four are set in the Pinch, with the others divided among the Old Country, Manhattan, and the Catskills. In the collection’s title story, Saul Bozoff, a 53-year-old writer who had acquired a modest reputation–and an academic job–for a collection of stories about "the Pinch," accompanies his mother to a wedding at a decrepit Catskill hotel.

On the face of it, this looks like a literary equivalent of been-there, done-that, but Stern has some very funny Yiddish ghosts up his sleeve. If Bozoff "populated his tales with every species of folklore, every manner of fanciful event," only to discover, painfully, that the spell that made his fiction possible has been broken, the same thing cannot be said of Stern–however many biographical echoes resonate between them. Indeed, one need only offer up "The Wedding Jester," the side-splitting tale of a bride invaded by the dybbuk of a long-dead Catskill comedian, as Exhibit A. In another story, "Bruno’s Metamorphosis," yet another Stern character suffers through the pangs of writer’s block: The happy news of Stern’s latest collection is that he, thank heaven, continues to write, and at the top of his form in the bargain.

With the notable exception of "A String Around the Moon: A Children’s Story," most of the shorter short stories pall when compared with longer, more complicated ones such as "Romance, or Yiddish Twilight." And in the case of "The Sin of Elijah," a tale of voyeurism and marital passion, Stern may well have penned the sexiest Jewish tale since "The Song of Songs."

There are many reasons to savor Stern’s stories–they remind us of a world and folkloric traditions long faded from memory, as well as of the imagination’s wilder side–but perhaps the most telling of all is the sheer pleasure they provide. All this will seem obvious to those who have read earlier Stern collections, but for those who have not, it is time they learn for themselves just how many characters can be crowded into a most unlikely ghetto. My favorites–and I am hardly alone–are "Lazar Malkin Enters Heaven" (from Stern’s prize-winning collection of the same name) and "The Tale of a Kite," probably his most anthologized story.

That The Wedding Jester begins with a mystical rabbi tethered to the earth, like a kite, and ends with a tale of how the moon is held captive in a room by way of a string is surely no accident–just as Stern’s crystal-clear prose teases us out of thought and resonates long after the last (invariably poetic) paragraphs seem over.

Ravelstein: A Writer’s Soul

Reprinted with permission from

Oh, the magisterial Abe Ravelstein! Drawn from the real-life model of Allan Bloom, Saul Bellow’s friend and colleague at the University of Chicago’s Committee on Social Thought, he is a world-class intellectual with a wide network of former students, and a man who never stopped thinking about the condition of his soul. Bellow has always been fatally attracted to the type, especially if, as is the case with Ravelstein, he also has enough hard cash to indulge his outrageously expensive tastes and to stay–often for extended periods–in the finest hotels Paris can offer.

Bellow tries hard to separate Ravelstein, his fictional character, and the real Allan Bloom, but those who have read Bellow’s remarks at Bloom’s funeral know better. There, he said this:

What I was seeing, as I well knew, was the avidity for life particularly keen in him…On a lesser level this avidity was apparent also in the delight he took in acquiring Persian carpets, Chinese chests, Hermes porcelain, Ultimo cashmere coats, and Mercedes-Benzes. In general, his attitude toward money was that it was something to be thrown away, scattered from the rear platform of luxury trains.

Many of the same examples and turns of phrase find their way into Ravelstein. No doubt some will take Bellow to task for writing a book that lets Ravelstein/Bloom off the hook too easily, but such people have been dogging Bellow’s heels ever since he wrote the introduction to The Closing of the American Mind (1987), a surprising best-seller given the book’s difficult, no-holds-barred arguments about higher education and American culture. To say a few kind words about Bloom–even if they are balanced by a realistic assessment of his foibles and eccentric folly–is to risk the censure of those who are quite willing to write off both Bellow and Bloom as pinch-faced conservatives. Such critics badly miss the fact that Bellow’s novel is less about cultural politics than it is about friendship.

But Ravelstein, or Bloom, if you prefer, is not reducible to a simple, formulated phrase–and that’s where the continuing strength of Bellow’s style comes in. In old age, he could still write rings around most of the younger competition. Which contemporary American novelist, one wonders, could pen lines as tightly packed with ideas and their consequences as these?

[Ravelstein was going to give his students]… a higher life, full of variety and diversity, governed by rationality–anything but the arid kind. If they were lucky, if they were bright and willing, Ravelstein would give them the greatest gift they could hope to receive and lead them through Plato, introduce them to the esoteric secrets of Maimonides, teach them the correct interpretation of Machievelli, acquaint them with the higher humanity of Shakespeare–up to and beyond Nietzsche. It wasn’t an academic program that he offered–it was more freewheeling than that.

The novel’s narrative crackles with sharp observations and memorably turned sentences. Bellow’s narrator, Chick, is superb here–this, surprisingly, wonderfully, as death and the Death Question press ever more urgently. Ravelstein gives him the opportunity to reflect not only about Allan Bloom’s death and about the true nature of male friendship but also about the life-threatening cigua toxin he got from eating poisoned fish during a Caribbean vacation. Like Papa Hemingway after his two plane crashes in Africa, Bellow was written off, prematurely, as a goner.

The extraordinary thing about Saul Bellow is that cultures high and low have always managed to co-exist in his fictional worlds (Ravelstein, the deep thinker, loves vaudeville patter, Michael Jordan, and Mel Brooks movies), and that he remained possibly the only contemporary American novelist not ashamed to use the word "soul." All this and much, much more is compressed into the biographical portrait of Ravelstein that Chick had reluctantly agreed to write. Ravelstein is that biographical sketch. In outlining how the chain-smoking Ravelstein looked in his sleek Japanese kimono or what he thought about Athens and Jerusalem–for him, the twin towers of our civilization–Chick (and Bellow) tells us what life means, or can mean, in our new century.

Isaac Bashevis Singer: Between Fact and Fiction

I was hardly surprised, in 2003, by the commentaries occasioned by the hundredth anniversary of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s birth. He was, after all, a Nobel laureate and the Yiddish writer most Jewish-American readers know. Certain Yiddishists, however, felt duty bound to remind people of just how much Singer was not a traditional Yiddish writer how he wrote about an Old World that never was, how Chaim Grade, author of The Yeshiva, was much more qualified to win a Nobel prize, how Singer was–no other word would do–a pornographer, and most cutting of all (at least for Yiddishists) how his Yiddish was hardly refined.

Singer had heard all these charges during his lifetime and he made no bones about the fact that he regarded most Yiddish writing as both sentimental and provincial. Moreover, he made no apologies if certain timid souls were shocked by the X-rated content in some of his fiction. Singer explored the darker sides of human nature, which meant that he wrote about betrayal, greed, murder, and sexual appetite. The same can be said for most great writers, but when Singer chronicled sexuality in both the Old World, and increasingly as his career unfolded, in the New World as well, many Yiddish readers were embarrassed.

And this was before Singer’s stories appeared in Playboy.

Early Career

Isaac Bashevis Singer came to America in 1935, already known among Yiddish readers in Poland for Satan in Goray, a quasi-historical novel about zealots who follow a false messiah and, in the process, turn traditional religious values upside-down.jewish literature

Singer was also well known (if not particularly “famous”) because his older brother was Israel Joshua Singer, the novelist and staff writer for the Forward, New York City’s leading Yiddish newspaper. Singer also wanted to be a Forward writer (a regular paycheck was, after all, a regular paycheck), but Abraham Cahan, the paper’s editor, nixed the deal. There was no future, he thought, for Yiddish or Yiddish newspapers once the city’s immigrant population learned–as they must–how to speak and read English. So, Singer worked on a piece-by-piece basis, submitting stories about dybbuks (malicious spirits) allegedly spotted in the Bronx, while working on his own stories.

Jewish-American Fiction in the 21st Century

"Look at me," the larky protagonist of Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March (1953) announces, "I’m going everywhere!" And, indeed, Augie did, with a picaresque energy that reminds readers of Huck Finn and with a voice entirely, wonderfully, his own. Bellow’s urban Jewish style forced the highfalutin and the street savvy to share floor space (often in a single paragraph), and in the process, made serious writing about American Jews possible.

Ironically enough, Ravelstein, Bellow’s last novel, was published in 2000, at the beginning of the 21st century. Bellow himself died five years later, but not before passing the Jewish-American fiction-writing torch.

Granted, my emphasis on new writers in our new century is arbitrary. Writers who established themselves in the 1960s and ’70s are still hard at work. One thinks, for example, of Philip Roth (The Plot Against America, 2004) and Cynthia Ozick (Heir to the Glimmering World, 2004). Still, "going everywhere" means very different things to the generation of emerging Jewish-American writers. They are, as they should be, a raucous and diverse bunch, and one can say of them what was once said about the 20th century triumvirate of Bellow, Roth, and Malamud–namely, that their Jewish-Jewish fiction is hard to define but easy to recognize.

"The Russian (Jews) Are Cominng!"

The late Irving Howe once declared that Jewish-American fiction was dying, if not completely dead, because the only story it could tell was how immigrant Jewish sons became fully assimilated Americans. No doubt Howe would have changed his mind had he lived long enough to read the work of Russian émigrés such as Gary Shteyngart, Lara Vapnyar, and David Bezmozgis.

To be strangers in a strange land, exiles wandering the earth, in a word, to be alienated perfectly described the condition of Jews in the modern world. One thinks of Kafka in Prague, of Proust in Paris, and of virtually every New York intellectual who wrote for Partisan Review. But the new crop of Russian-Jewish writers differs from those who never imagined taking six-hour plane rides back to Moscow. The new crop do, and if Gary Shteyngart is to be believed, they do it often–even as they are busily furthering their careers in America. They continue to live, in short, between two worlds, no longer Russian but not yet fully Americanized.

Moreover, there is a feel about the new Russian Jews that differs substantially from early 20th-century immigrants. Shteyngart’s thick, wonderfully edgy novel, The Russian Debutante’s Handbook (2003) goes almost everywhere (or at least from Manhattan to Eastern Europe) stirring up a heady brew of vivid characters and thickly textured language. Here, I would argue, is Augie’s long-lost cousin.

Lara Vapnyar’s There are Jews in My House (2003) is a collection of quietly intense coming-of-age stories that strip both language and emotion to the bone. David Bezmozgis’ Natasha and Other Stories (2004) often puts his newly arrived Russian immigrants in Canada where disappointments wear many faces.

Tradition Reborn

One cannot help noticing that observant Jewish characters are no longer stuck into novels only to be roundly dismissed or to provide moments of cheap comic relief. The sociological saw about children seeking to recover what their parents once cast off has turned out to be true for many young Jewish-American writers and for the fictions they write.

Dara Horn made her literary debut with In the Image (2003) a novel that used photographs and artfully constructed doll houses to explore the ways "images" both fix and formulate the past, including the Holocaust. Horn’s new novel The World to Come (2006) combines her deep interest in mystical Yiddish texts (particularly those of the author Der Nister), with the story about a stolen Chagall painting. Tova Mirvis’s The Outside World (2004) continues the sociological explorations of Orthodox Jewry she began with The Ladies Auxiliary (1999) this time in a tale set largely in Brooklyn rather than in the Memphis of her childhood and first novel.

If Horn and Mirvis, like slightly older writers such as Rebecca Goldstein and Allegra Goodman, focus on characters who struggle within the restrictions of traditional Judaism, there are a group of writers who may have been raised in Orthodox homes but whose characters eventually leave the fold, whether this is reflected in the tightly constructed short stories of Nathan Englander’s For the Relief of Unbearable Urges (1999), one of which brings a man to implore his rebbe to permit him to visit a prostitute; the semi-autobiographical conflicts outlined in Pearl Abraham’s The Romance Reader (1995), in which the novel’s young female protagonist leaves her father’s Hasidic house; the darkly bitter satire of Shalom Auslander’s Beware of God (2005)–one story deals with a religious boy’s guilty experience with masturbation; or in the exquisitely layered paragraphs of Aryeh Lev Stollman’s The Illuminated Soul (2003), itself a novel told in stories-within-stories.

There was a time when Englander was the hot new writer in town but this feeling has somewhat cooled as readers await his long-delayed second book. By contrast, Abraham continues to explore her Hasidic upbringing in ever more ambitious ways (see especially The Seventh Beggar, 2005) while Stollman remains a mannered, somewhat special taste. The jury is still out about Auslander, but I suspect his fiction will have limited appeal if his future stories continue, in the words of Eileen H. Watts, to start off like Bernard Malamud and end like Art Spiegelman.

Joan Leegant (An Hour in Paradise, 2003) is yet another twist that a return to traditional Judaism can take. She, along with others such as Naama Goldstein (The Place Will Comfort You, 2004), Risa Miller (Welcome to Heavenly Heights, 2003), and Ruhama King (Seven Blessings, 2003), tackle the experience of being transformed by Israel. A significant number of Leegant’s stories explore mysticism, whether set in Israel’s Safed or among Brooklyn’s Lubavitcher Hasidim; King’s female protagonist, who badly wants to find her soul mate, lives in an ultra-Orthodox section of Jerusalem; Goldstein’s stories demonstrate just how difficult it is for young protagonists, new to Israel, to "fit into" Israeli culture; while Miller explores the difficulties that a newly translated Jewish-American family faces in a West Bank settlement.

I end this section with Jonathan Rosen. Rosen’s easy familiarity with Jewish ideas is everywhere on display in his memoir-essay, The Talmud and the Internet (2001) and that spirit marks his rounded portrait of a vulnerable female rabbi in his most recent novel, Joy Comes in the Morning (2004). Deborah Green is unmarried and not at all sure about her role as a pasturing rabbi, but it is precisely these conflicts that make for a satisfying piece of fiction. This is Jewish-American writing that should not have been possible–that is, if Irving Howe were right–but that gloriously is.

The Secular Jewish-American Past is Never Completely Past

With so much talk about Jewish-American writers and their characters reconnecting with Judaism, I suspect that some are wondering if social realism of the sort Philip Roth did so brilliantly in Goodbye, Columbus (1959) still has a place. It does, although perhaps well off to the sidelines. Joseph Epstein, widely known as a former editor of American Scholar and a frequent contributor to Commentary magazine, continues to publish collections of his short stories (Fabulous Small Jews, 2004), and Gerald Shapiro (Bad Jews, 2004), considerably younger than Epstein, writes old-fashioned, fall-down funny stories that prove it’s still possible to take the comic measure of Jewish foodstuffs and squabbling Jewish families.

The New (Married) Kids on the Literary Block

No survey of Jewish-American fiction in the 21st century would be complete without mentioning a young couple so talented and certainly so well-connected that attention, often seeped in controversy, doesn’t wait until the ink dries from their pages. I am speaking of course about Jonathan Safron Foer (Everything is Illuminated, 2003; Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, 2005) and Nicole Krauss (Man Walks Into a Room, 2003; The History of Love, 2005).

Foer came to wide attention for his first novel, which features a protagonist named Jonathan Safran Foer. Trying to track down a story about his grandfather and how he managed to survive the Holocaust, Foer, the character, make his way to the Ukraine where he teams up with a colorful Ukrainian guide and where he mines the layers of Jewish history as if it were a tall tale from the Old Southwest. Neither Foer the character nor Foer the author ever find the "facts" but find, instead, what may be even more valuable: the Truth that first-rate fiction always tells.

Krauss’ first novel, an exploration of amnesia, was generally praised but her second book, The History of Love, with multiple narrators and interlocking stories, was reviewed–often disparagingly–in high profile newspapers and magazines. Some were incensed that she played so fast-and-loose with history, particularly the sections dealing with Poland and the Holocaust while others found the novel both manipulative and ultimately sentimental. By contrast, general readers by the thousands loved it.

Still Going Everywhere

If Jewish-American literature in the early years of the 21st century seems to be "going everywhere," that’s a good, exciting thing. We have, after all, many more decades before the dust settles. History will make judgments about which writers remain quick and which ones, alas, seem quite dead.

I don’t expect to be around in the 22nd century but the work of some of these writers just might.

Chelm Stories & Motke Habad

Reprinted with permission from
The Schlemiel as Metaphor: Studies in Yiddish and American Jewish Fiction
(Southern Illinois University Press).


Perhaps Jewish “humor” began when somebody wondered if maybe, just for once, God could choose someone else! Or, perhaps, Jewish humor was never really humor in the ordinary sense of the word; rather, it was a weapon in the uphill battle for survival. With no land or army of its own–with none of the rights normally given to citizens–staying alive as a people was a decidedly open question.

Nathan Ausebel claims that “as identifiable types, schlemihls and schlimazls must have sprung into being with the first drastic economic discrimina­tions against Jews by the Byzantine emperors, beginning with Justinian (530-56).”

Powerless by any conventional standards, Jews became masters in the arts of self-mockery. However, rather than merely turning the sharp edges of their humor against the oppressor, they tended to turn it inward, to establish their own humanity by comic extensions of universal follies. In Wit and Its Relation to the Uncon­scious, Freud makes the following observation:

“The occurrence of self-criticism as a determinant may ex­plain how it is that a number of the most apt jokes… have grown up on the soil of the Jewish popular life. They are sto­ries created by Jews and directed against Jewish characterist­ics…. I do not know whether there are many other in­stances of a people making fun to such a degree of its own character.”

Stories of Chelm

It is from these roots that the schlemiel gradually be­came a stock figure of Jewish anecdote. In some stories, he seems to be a citizen of Chelm [a mythical village populated, according to Jewish folklore, by fools] and, like each of its citizens, a misrepresenter of reality. For example, the medieval story of Shemuliel is often retold as if it hap­pened in Chelm–with the schlemiel getting the sort of “explanation” he deserves.

A young scholar of Chelm, innocent in the ways of earthly matters, was stunned one morning when his wife gave birth. Pellmell he ran to the rabbi.

Future of Jewish Humor

The Hebrew Bible, that repository of stories about the full range of human behavior–from the cowardly to the courageous, the noble and the base–includes its share of humor. To get some appreciation of the humor dotting its way through the Hebrew Bible, think of how it differs sharply the Christian Testaments. 

As a character from a Bernard Malamud story once put it, “Jesus is a humorless guy.” If the stories in the Hebrew Bible are about people, complete with a capacity for laughter, the “greatest story ever told” is about a demi-God. No irony, no ambivalence, and certainly no jokes need apply.

By contrast, the Jewish humor we recognize instantly happens when a wag is told that we are the Chosen People and who wonders–out loud and after morning prayers–if, perhaps next time, God might choose somebody else. Between rabbinic solemnity and life’s grittier edges lies Sholem Aleichem’s Tevye, a man who confides that “with God’s help I starved three times a day.”

Humor of Oppression

Saul Bellow once pointed out that “oppressed people tend to be witty.” True enough–for the Irish, for blacks in America, and most certainly for the Jews. Humor is what the powerless have, and what they rely on. If Jewish humor is often a shield meant to deflect Gentile fists, it can also be a weapon wielded from an oblique angle. But whether it be shield, weapon, or some combination of the two (a shweapon?) humor has been an essential ingredient in Jewish survival.

From the destruction of the Temple onward, Jewish humor has often been described as “bittersweet,” a laughter filtered through tears. It produced a lively retinue of comic types–the residents of Chelm, the city of fools of Yiddish folktales, the schnorrer (beggar), the nudnick (pest), and my special favorite, the schlemiel, a character who is the architect of his misfortune and as such, easily transported to America. He shows up in everything from Charlie Chaplin’s poignantly loveable little tramp to Woody Allen’s neurotic Upper-West-Side New Yorkers.

Philip Roth

I have the dubious distinction of writing an early study of Philip Roth’s fiction better known for its dedication than for its content: “To my mother, who hoped I would write about somebody else.” 

Why, my mother kvetched, couldn’t I write about Leon Uris’s Exodus (1958), a story that made Jews proud rather than ashamed? “Let’s face it,” she said, “Roth’s a no-goodnik, and if you play with a bum, that’s what you’ll become.”

The Early Stories

Philip Roth was born in Newark, New Jersey on March 19, 1933 to Bess Finkel Roth and Herman Roth, a man Roth once described as “a cross between Captain Ahab and Willy Loman.” Roth’s Newark childhood is one of his great inspirations, and he depicts it in full in the non-fiction The Facts (1988). In another memoir, Patrimony (1991), Roth describes his relationship with his combative father, then suffering the ravages of cancer.

But Philip Roth is, of course, best known for his fiction. In l959, he published Goodbye, Columbus, and Five Short Stories. Not only did the 26-year-old Roth walk off with the National Book Award for his efforts, he also set in motion debates about tradition, responsibility, and the individual artist that would dog his heels from then on–book after book, decade after decade.
philip roth

Many American Jews were not pleased to see what Roth’s satiric eye and deadly accurate ear could dig up about, well, them. Goodbye, Columbus put their manners and mores on public display, and while they may have denied the accuracy of Roth’s observations, they also winced whenever his stories edged too close to the truth.

What Goodbye, Columbus laid bare was the empty triumphs of contemporary Jewish-American life. He wrote, in short, about the Jewish-American suburbs in a way that boosters equated with prophetic scolding and knockers worried would precipitate anti-Semitic riots. Hindsight suggests that both groups were wrong: Roth’s collection occasioned neither an abrupt shift in mainstream Jewish-American attitudes nor broken noses suffered from Gentile fists. What did change, however, was a revised–and revitalized–sense of the subjects to which Jewish-Americans writers could lay claim.

Novelists in the Nineties

Reprinted with permission from the Spring 1997 issue of Reform Judaism.

Jewish American novelists are like Jews themselves–easy to recognize, but difficult to define.

Small wonder then, that many readers associate Jewish American fiction with characters who sport Jewish names and live in largely Jewish neighborhoods, eat lox and bagels at elaborate Sunday brunches, pepper up their conversation by waving their hands and tossing in vivid Yiddish phrases, and suffer from world-class guilt. No longer, for a new group of Jewish American fictionists has emerged, and they don’t have the slightest interest in writing another Portnoy’s Complaint, much less another Exodus or Marjorie Morningstar.

Contemporary Jewish writers such as Steve Stern, Melvin Jules Bukiet, Allegra Goodman, and Rebecca Goldstein bring to the table intelligence, moral passion, magical realism, and perhaps most of all, a Jewish writing no longer skittish about grounding itself in Jewish memory and Jewish ideas. They differ from earlier generations of Jewish novelists who had essentially one story to tell–namely, how they made their way from blue-collar Brooklyn to the glittering, usually assimilated life in Manhattan. Irving Howe once speculated that as the emotional and aesthetic distance from the Jewish immigrant experience widened, we could only look forward to ever-thinner slices of Jewish American social realism; and, as such, that it was probably time to close the book on what he regarded as a rich chapter in the larger history of regional American writing.

Steve Stern

By such reckoning, the stories of Steve Stern ought not to exist. Set in Memphis, Tennessee, at a time when its Jewish ghetto (“the Pinch”) had a distinctive shape and feel, Stern brings to his highly imaginative reconstruction a magical realism that, by crafty increments, transforms the ordinary into the miraculous. The result are stories in which virtually anything can happen–and usually does. Why so? Because “the Pinch” is packed to overflowing with shopkeepers, gossips, no-goodnicks, and inveterate dreamers–all tucked away, as it were, within the folds of a larger Southern culture.

Stern cut his imaginative teeth as a folklorist (in 1983 he served as director of the Center for Southern Folklore’s Ethnic Heritage Program). The oral histories he transcribed as part of his work began to reassemble themselves in his mind. And thus it was that “the Pinch,” in Stern’s words, “rose up like the Lost Continent of Atlantis for me and began to look like a home for my stories.” The result is at once a haunting memory and an intimation of the entirely new–for Stern so blends the surface detail of what was with infusions of the fantastic that it is often difficult to know where accuracy ends and magical realism begins. As one character puts it, “It’s like…being awake in your dreams.”

Melvin Jules Bukiet