A dying woman hands on an unfinished manuscript to a young student, in a murky, prolix tale by Stern (Plague of Dreamers, 1994, etc.).
Saul Bozoff is 19 when, in 1969, he arrives in New York City. From Memphis, this neurotic, virginal, self-pitying character also steps straight from the pages of Woody Allen, Philip Roth and Bernard Malamud. Feeling alienated at NYU, he looks up his aunt, Keni Shendeldecker, on the Lower East Side. As the two walk neighborhood streets (Stern etches them sharply in their grimy, late ’60s glory), it becomes clear, as reality blends with fantasy, that Aunt Keni literally sees the fabled “Lower East Side of antiquity”—the bakeries, restaurants, and butcher shops of the early 1900s. Before long, Saul as well sees literal manifestations of the past and becomes intrigued by Keni’s account of a brief marriage to Nathan Hart, proofreader at the Forward and author of an unfinished manuscript. Hart’s story, Keni says, was “a screwball affair. . . about an angel that comes to earth and has by a human girl a child.” As Keni dies, she gives the manuscript to Saul, urging him to finish the story. Nathan’s tale thereupon comes to life, as does his narrative of the angel Mockie and his earthly son Nachman. Saul, meanwhile, in surreal and picaresque sequences, shares a commune, explores Prague and, finally, at 35, settles down to finishing Nathan’s story. The time periods of the three narratives offer Stern rich potential, and therein lies the problem: He seems never to have met a detail, character or subplot he didn’t like, unleashing a torrent of verbiage that obscures and overwhelms his considerations of art and reality, heaven and earth.
Some will savor the abundance of period detail and the mordant wit that lace the author’s melancholy tale. Others will wish he’d get on with it.