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Three Novellas

by Steve Stern

Pub Date: Jan. 5th, 1994
ISBN: 0-684-19532-1
Publisher: Scribner

 Another beguiling dispatch from the Pinch--Memphis's Jewish ghetto--in the form of an intricate generational tale preceded by two curtain-raisers. The first story, ``Zelig Rifkin and the Tree of Dreams,'' proceeds exactly as advertised: famed local coward Zelig Rifkin, tormented by the Pinch Gang and forced to climb a humongous tree to retrieve their lost kite, finds that from the height of the tree's branches he can see what everyone in town is dreaming, enter their dreams if he chooses, and puff himself for a few precious weeks into the mensch he's never been. ``Hyman the Magnificent'' presents a dry- goods escapist artist who, unwisely convinced that he's Houdini's spiritual son, fails at ever more dangerous stunts until the predictably paranormal climax. But Stern (Harry Kaplan's Adventures Underground, 1991, etc.) saves his boldest magic for his biggest story, ``Annals of the Kabakoffs,'' in which a series of flashbacks reveal how family black-sheep Itchy Kabakoff--carnival hustler, author of a thousand scams, and agent of his father Moses's suicide--has all along been recapitulating the life of his grandfather Yankel, kidnapped from his native village and sold into the Tsar's army--until even Itchy himself realizes that his dreamlike liaison with his Tante Laylah, an authentic descendant of Lilith rescued from the family fate of disappearing by a timely application of printer's ink by Mose, binds him tighter to his family in more ways than one. So maybe the gears of the fantastic groan from time to time, but Stern never loses his command of the Hasidic storyteller's gift: he makes you feel that the entire universe is balanced on the Jewish neighborhood of Memphis, Tennessee.