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Malamud meets Kesey…and Guggenheim Professor Steve Stern a born storyteller
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Malamud meets Kesey...and Guggenheim

Professor Steve Stern is a born storyteller. His narratives gallop, his language rollicks, his characters live and breathe and sometimes levitate. (In one short story, a beloved old rabbi not only levitates but also dangles a string of adoring children behind him like the tail of a kite.)

In Stern’s work, tall-tale impossibilities come embedded in the cozy cultural matrix of Yiddishkeit, with results that are often comical and frequently startling. In one story, a Jewish mother’s relatives—theatrical costumers by trade—give her a Viking burial, setting her adrift in a flaming dinghy, attired in a horned helmet with “her needlework and a picnic basket of pastries”at her side.

In another piece, a little boy thinks his old aunt’s perennial virginity must be bad for her health, so he summons the archangel Azrael to marry her, and soon the banns are being read. And in The Angel of Forgetfulness, another angel—this one AWOL from Paradise—makes love to a human girl who, unfazed at the sight of his wings, “seemed to think that his downy pinions were another feature of the male anatomy for which her mother had failed to properly prepare her.”

Where does Stern get this stuff? Not from his Memphis childhood. He grew up attending a temple so Reform that, he quips, “until I was thirty-five I thought I was a Methodist,” and his early writing had a strictly Southern flavor. No, he stumbled onto the mother lode in the early 1980s, working for a Memphis folklore center to gather oral histories in an old Jewish neighborhood known as “the Pinch.” At first, he recalls, his elderly subjects protested, “It was long ago, we were poor, we don’t like to think about it.” But soon “the floodgates would open,” marvels Stern, who drank it all in with the exhilaration of a convert. “I’d had no idea there was such richness—folktales and cabalistic lore, shtetl scandals and Torah in translation, immigrant history, dybbuks and golems and Liliths. I couldn’t get enough of it.”

He also read everything he could get his hands on, until the mystical components melded with the gritty ghetto tales and his own stories began rolling out. “It’s all channeled,” Stern says, deadpan. “I take dictation.”

Maybe that’s true, or maybe that’s just his self-deprecating modesty. But he does admit that his stories are also his way “to locate the place of the sacred in these latter days.” Whether they’re rooted in the Talmud or New York’s Lower East Side in 1912, Stern wants his stories to “subvert reality with the timelessness of myth.” That quest has won him Pushcart and O. Henry prizes, a 2004 Fulbright grant to teach in Israel, and a Guggenheim award this year to finish a new novel currently titled The Frozen Rabbi. He gets outright raves from critics, who call his style “Singer and Malamud with a bit of Ken Kesey and vaudeville,” describe his stories as “dirty, funny, and smart,” and admire his “narrative high-stakesmanship and comic gifts.” The New York Times notes that reviews of The Angel of Forgetfulness are “the kinds that authors frame and hang on the wall for courage when the critics are less kind.”

Stern shrugs off all that. “Storytelling is a natural function,” he says. “It’s almost in our DNA.” Besides, “I really like to write. I work very slowly, syllable by syllable, five to six hours a day, and then I’m spent. If I don’t write every day, I’m not happy—it’s almost physical.” Does he ever get writer’s block? He grins. “I’m gonna knock on wood. I’ve got many more stories than I’ll ever get to. I hope to stay healthy enough to receive them.” —BAM