Ruben Shein, a writer and self-entitled ""Jew d'esprit,"" is knocking around Wales doing not much--when word reaches him from Arkansas that his mentor Benjamin Wolf, poet of the grand old egomaniacal school, has died. And Wolf's mistress, small-press publisher Phoebe Jones, beckons Ruben back to accept Wolf's unusual bequest to him: painter-wife Lydia, whom Wolf had abandoned for Phoebe. Ruben, with nothing better to do, returns; maybe he'll do Wolf's bio while he's at it. But the inherited Lydia turns out to be in less than tip-top emotional shape, immediately pulling Ruben from Excelsior, Arkansas, to New Orleans to do her bidding. New Orleans turns out to be a year-long Mardi Gras, replete with live-in clowns (two destitute fellow-writers, Cloff and Devereux) and circuses (Lydia's art-gallery and studio society). And Stern writes here in the J.P. Donleavy-style of self-inflating rhetorical excess. (""It wasn't enough that he was witless from loss of sleep, nerves jangling, blood rabid from the poisonous diet which also sustained his suppurating pores. But now it had to rain so torrentially that it seemed he was driving through a series of impenetrable draperies, hunched over the wheel looking for the flash of white lines."") Unfortunately, however, there's only one genuinely funny scene in all this farcical/literary folderol: Ruben gets locked into the Maison Blanche department store one night. The rest, though comically phrased, is more strained than amusing--not fulfilling the promise of Stem's appealing story in the 1981 O. Henry collection, ""Isaac and the Undertaker's Daughter.