In Memphis, the neighborhood around North Main Street has long been known as the Pinch, and its name recalls the privation of a striving, if not exactly thriving, Jewish community that occupied it in the early decades of the 20th century. It is to author Steve Stern what Dublin was for Joyce — a rich canvas for storytelling that he’s visited over and over again, obsessively, across numerous novels and short stories throughout his 30-year career.
Stern is known for imbuing his stories with a hefty dose of magical realism, informed by his deep knowledge of Yiddish folklore. His latest novel, titled “The Pinch: A Novel/A History,” is brimming with wondrous surprises, yo-yoing back and forth between intertwined narratives decades apart.
It’s the story of Lenny Skalrew, a boorish drug dealer who’s the last remaining resident of a burned-out Pinch in 1968, and Muni Pinsker, a Russian refugee seeking solace in the hurly-burly Pinch of 1911. When Lenny finds Muni’s long lost memoir in the used bookstore he works at, he is surprised to discover that he himself is a character in it. It’s the first of many surreal twists that make “The Pinch” such a compelling (and, at times, maddening) novel.
Muni’s story is achingly beautiful, full of little details and rich vignettes that help bring the Pinch to life. It all begins with a tentative courtship between Muni and Jenny, an aspiring tightrope walker; their treetop consummation unleashes a flood and an earthquake that upends not only the tree, but time and logic itself. Afterward, the Pinch becomes unstuck from reality, and “there seemed to be the conviction at large in those irrigated streets that time was stalled.” Muni spontaneously gains the ability to see into the past and the future of the neighborhood, and it is in this fevered aftermath that he sits down to write his timeless memoir.
Stern is an artful writer. His sentences are crafted with precision and purpose, which helps to make the often irrational happenings in the Pinch seem natural and comprehensible. When Muni observes “a headless figure molded from clay, with stumps in place of arms and legs” tottering down North Main Street in the aftermath of the quake, he looks to his uncle Pinchas for an explanation. “It’s the golem that he didn’t finish making it, the rebbe,” says Pinchas, unceremoniously.
Through Muni’s writing, we learn about his breathless escape from “a cold katorga compound, below the entrance to a mica mine somewhere east of the town of Nerchinsk” and his scramble across the “Siberian immensity” to freedom. It’s a riveting story, matched only by the tale of Pinchas’s arrival in Tennessee amid a plague of yellow fever. “There were drums of boiling creosote stationed along the curbs and burning bedclothes saturated in regurgitation. Asafetida bags tied around the necks of frightened citizens vied with the pungency of decomposing flesh.”
It’s not all trials and tribulations, however — there’s plenty of wit and humor here. Like the story of Rose and Morris Padauer, whose infant son Benjy is replaced by a shretelekh, a type of immortal Yiddish troll. As the novel winds on, the boundaries between myth and the mundane grow increasingly more blurry, to hilarious effect.
There’s one big stumbling block, though. The contrast between the incandescent prose and thoughtful characterization of Muni’s chapters and the flat, one-dimensional slog of Lenny’s chapters is so sharp that it’s hard to believe they were written by the same author. Lenny drifts aimlessly through hippie flops and beatnik bars, complaining about Vietnam and trying to get laid. He’s more a collection of clichés than a real character.
When his love interest, Rachel, tells Lenny that he’s “not really an authentic human being,” and an author to whom Lenny sends Muni’s memoir calls his presence in the narrative a “needless contrivance,” one wonders why Stern didn’t heed his own character’s critiques.
Additionally, dropping Lenny into the middle of the Memphis sanitation workers strike, which ultimately leads to the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., seems like a particularly crass way of trying to assign weight to an otherwise frivolous story.
But there’s magic in “The Pinch” and plenty of it — enough to make it worth skimming through the lean bits to get at the diamonds Stern has conjured up.
THE PINCH: A Novel/A History
By Steve Stern
Graywolf, 368 pp, $26Michael Patrick Brady, a writer
from Boston, can be reached at email@example.com.
Follow him on Twitter @michaelpbrady.