Stern, Steve 1947–
Stern, Steve 1947–
PERSONAL: Born December 21, 1947, in Memphis, TN; son of Sol (a grocer) and Rose (a homemaker) Stern; married Violet Trosper, October 12, 1983 (divorced, 1986). Education: Rhodes College, B.A. (with distinction), 1970; University of Arkansas, M.F. A., 1977.
CAREER: Writer and educator. Visiting lecturer at Memphis College of Art, Memphis, TN, 1985–86, University of Wisconsin—Madison, 1987, and Skid-more College, Saratoga Springs, NY, 1990–. Writer in residence at Lake George Arts Project, Lake George, NY, spring, 1987, and at West Side YMCA, New York City, fall, 1988. Director of Ethnic Heritage Program, Center for Southern Folklore, Memphis, 1983. Moss Chair of Excellence in English, University of Memphis, Memphis, TN, spring, 2002, and Fulbright Lecturer in creative writing at Bar Ilan University, Tel Aviv, Israel, fall, 2004.
AWARDS, HONORS: O. Henry Prize, 1981, for story "Isaac and the Undertaker's Daughter"; Pushcart Writer's Choice Award, 1983, for collection Isaac and the Undertaker's Daughter; grant from Tennessee Literary Arts Association, 1983; Tennessee Arts Commission fellow, 1983; MacDowell Colony fellow, 1985; Edward Lewis Wallant Award, 1987, for Lazar Malkin Enters Heaven; National Jewish Book Award, 2005, for The Wedding Jester.
Isaac and the Undertaker's Daughter (stories), Lost Roads (San Francisco, CA), 1983.
The Moon and Ruben Shein (novel), August House (Little Rock, AR), 1984.
Lazar Malkin Enters Heaven (stories), Viking (New York, NY), 1986.
Mickey and the Golem: A Child's Hanukkah in the South (for children), illustrations by Jeanne Seagle, St. Luke's Press (Memphis, TN), 1986.
Hershel and the Beast (for children), illustrations by K. King Gillis, Ion Books (Mempis, TN), 1987.
Harry Kaplan's Adventures Underground (novel), Ticknor & Fields (New York, NY), 1991.
A Plague of Dreamers: Three Novellas, Scribner's (New York, NY), 1994.
The Wedding Jester (short stories), Graywolf Press (St. Paul, MN), 1999.
The Angel of Forgetfulness (novel), Viking (New York, NY), 2005.
SIDELIGHTS: Steve Stern is a prize-winning fiction writer whose works deal with both Jewish culture and life in the American South. Most noted for his story collections Isaac and the Undertaker's Daughter and Lazar Malkin Enters Heaven, he is distinguished by his ability to blend the idiosyncrasies of Jewish culture with the eccentricities of close-knit Southern communities. While critics inevitably have labeled him either a Southern or a Jewish writer, the author emphasizes that he is uncomfortable with such categories. "I have a love-hate relationship with the South," Stern explained to Bruce Weber in the New York Times Book Review. "I don't understand why I continue to return there." Furthermore, Stern continued, "there was very little Jewish content in my growing up. I'm just drawn to Jewish sources and Jewish folklore the same way I seem to be drawn to the damn South. If there's anything that made my being Southern and Jewish necessary and important to my fiction, it's that the combination of the two serves to provide a sense of community."
Stern first drew critical attention in 1981, when his story "Isaac and the Undertaker's Daughter" earned an O. Henry Prize. Two years later the piece was featured in his story collection of the same title, which in turn earned the Pushcart Writer's Choice Award. Stern's next work, a novel titled The Moon and Ruben Shein, was published in 1984. Chronicling the misadventures of its title character, the book turns on Ruben's learning that his longtime literary mentor, Benjamin Wolf, has committed suicide and bequeathed Ruben his widow, Lydia. The protagonist leaves his home in Wales and travels to Wolf's residence in Arkansas, where he lives with both Lydia and Wolf's mistress, Phoebe. Attempting to write a biography of Wolf, Ruben is ultimately distracted by tangential travel and bizarre personal relationships. Although some critics found The Moon and Ruben Shein somewhat digressive, the work was praised as a humorous and promising first novel.
Stern followed his novel with a second story collection, Lazar Malkin Enters Heaven. Comprised of stories set mostly in a Jewish ghetto in Memphis called the Pinch, the work "includes characters who dabble in occult, hermetic mysteries learned from crumbling old volumes, whose heads are swimming with ideas about angels, golems, [and] dybbuks," described Morris Dickstein in the New York Times Book Review. In the story "The Gramophone," for example, a sadistic boy taunts his dying grandmother by destroying her antique gramophone and threatening to poison her and throw her corpse in a boiling cauldron. The boy's cruelty eventually is squelched by his younger brother, and the "eerie, resonant tale," wrote Dickstein, concludes in a "tricky supernatural" manner. Another story, "The Ghost and Saul Bozoff," depicts a troubled writer from Memphis who visits an idyllic New England writer's colony. Attempting to cure his writer's block by reading works by other artists, Saul is impressed by the ethnic richness of writings by Emma Lazarus, a young woman author who died in the 1920s. When he is visited by Emma's ghost, Saul develops a fascination not only with the female apparition but with writing about Jewish culture and history.
Lazar Malkin Enters Heaven met with enthusiastic critical reception. Calling the book a "startling collection" by a "prodigiously talented writer," Dickstein placed Stern among the few Jewish-American writers who "show any familiarity with the night side of the Jewish imagination, the magical and fantastic side that goes back through cabalism to folk traditions and popular superstitions." Impressed not only by the "stupendous lore" and "sharply plotted" stories contained in the volume, the critic decided the "most striking elements in Mr. Stern's fiction [are] his arresting style, which veers between the poetic compression of a Malamud and the vulgar exuberance of a Stanley Elkin …, [and] his cooly detached piety toward the Old World past." Los Angeles Times Book Review contributor Janet Hadda called Lazar Malkin Enters Heaven "luminous," "remarkable," and filled with "dreamy brilliance." She compared the author to such Jewish writers as Moyshe Kulbak and I.J. Schwartz but qualified: "It would be unfair and incorrect … to imply that Stern's stories, or even their tone are merely derivative. While they seem to hark back to a specific tradition, these tales are an entity unto themselves." Hadda determined the author's stories are "a new link in the chain of Jewish fiction." Dickstein noted: "Reaching back to a neglected corner of the Jewish psyche, [Stern] has taken well-worn materials and turned them alchemically into something rich and strange."
In the A Plague of Dreamers: Three Novellas, Stern presents three tales set in the immigrant Jewish community in Memphis. "Zelig Rifkin and the Tree of Dream" is about a grocery store worker who can enter peoples' dreams. A magician reproduces the tricks of Houdini and wins a woman's heart in "Hyman the Magnificent." "Annals of the Kabakoffs" features Itchy Kabakoff, who joins a traveling carnival and becomes a thief and seducer of women. "While all the tales are beguiling, 'Annals' suggests that one of these days Stern may be a worthy successor to Isaac Bashevis Singer," wrote a Publishers Weekly contributor. Mary Carroll, writing in Booklist, referred to the stories as "three tales of young men's hopes and fears, fantasies and realities," adding that the book "will appeal to readers of many ethnicities." In a review for Studies in Short Fiction, Mark Bernheim noted: "Stern weaves between magic and the commonplace without end." Bernheim went on to note: "To read these tales is to put on a crown of three jewels, and find yourself where you didn't ever expect to be."
The nine short stories in The Wedding Jester feature "a contemporary twist to the rich folkloric tradition of Jewish culture," as noted by Donna Seaman in Booklist. In the title story, a bride becomes possessed by a dybbuk, or spirit, just before she says "I do." In this case, the spirit happens to be an old Jewish comedian. When the narrator tries to use a Jewish mystical technique involving kissing to remove the spirit, he, in turn, becomes the host. Other stories feature a levitating Rabbi and a biblical prophet who becomes intrigued by the fantastic sex life of a Jewish couple. "Stern's tales utterly transport readers into a fully realized world," wrote a Publishers Weekly contributor. In a review in Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought, D. Mesher commented that this new collection of short stories "will continue to delight his fans." Molly Abramowitz, writing in the Library Journal, noted: "Apparitions, the fantastical, and uproarious hilarity are featured throughout."
The Angel of Forgetfulness is another collection of three interlinked stories beginning with the tale of a Jewish immigrant living on New York's Lower East Side in the early 1900's. The immigrant, Nathan Hart, woos a young Jewish woman named Keni by telling her a story about an angel and his half-human son, which makes up the book's second narrative. The third tale is told by Keni's nephew Saul, who enters the world of hippies and drugs only to end up a scholar of hermetic Jewish studies. Michael Dirda, writing in the Washington Post, commented: "Even while creating the novel's interlaced structure, these multiple strands also allow Stern to show off his command of several registers of English and his marvelous talent for evoking two different eras." Dirda went on to write: "Like so much Jewish-American writing, Stern's prose … neatly blends gallows humor, naturalistic detail, the twang and syntax of Yiddish and learned reference."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Booklist, January 15, 1994, Mary Carroll, review of A Plague of Dreamers: Three Novellas, p. 902; June 1, 1999, Donna Seaman, review of The Wedding Jester, p. 1798.
Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought, winter, 2000, D. Mesher, review of The Wedding Jester, p. 120.
Library Journal, June 1, 1999, Molly Abramowitz, review of The Wedding Jester, p. 184.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, May 24, 1987, Janet Hadda, review of Lazar Malkin Enters Heaven.
New York Times Book Review, March 1, 1987, Bruce Weber, interview with author, and Morris Dick-stein, review of Lazar Malkin Enters Heaven, p. 11.
Publishers Weekly, January 25, 1991, Sybil Steinberg, review of Harry Kaplan's Adventures Underground, p. 48; October 11, 1993, review of A Plague of Dreamers, p. 68; May 10, 1999, review of The Wedding Jester, p. 56.
Studies in Short Fiction, winter, 1996, Mark Bernheim, review of A Plague of Dreamers, p. 129.
Washington Post, April 3, 2005, Michael Dirda, review of The Angel of Forgetfulness, p. BW15.
Luke Ford Home Page, http://www.lukeford.net/ (October 27, 2006), "Steve Stern Interview."
Skidmore College Web site, http://www.skidmore.edu/ (October 27, 2006), faculty profile of author.