A Plague of Dreamers: Three Novellas

Overview

Steve Stern, "an astonishing writer . . . who has secured himself a seat in the distinguished history of Jewish-American letters" (The Philadelphia Inquirer), returns with lyrically comic tales about the Pinch, a backwater Jewish community in Memphis, Tennessee, whose misbegotten citizens refer to themselves as "the lost tribe." Stern's dreamers are plagued by history, lust, solitude, and the extravagance of their own fevered imaginations: Zelik Rifkin, nebbishe mama's boy, invades his neighbors' dreams and ...
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Overview

Steve Stern, "an astonishing writer . . . who has secured himself a seat in the distinguished history of Jewish-American letters" (The Philadelphia Inquirer), returns with lyrically comic tales about the Pinch, a backwater Jewish community in Memphis, Tennessee, whose misbegotten citizens refer to themselves as "the lost tribe." Stern's dreamers are plagued by history, lust, solitude, and the extravagance of their own fevered imaginations: Zelik Rifkin, nebbishe mama's boy, invades his neighbors' dreams and nightmares, and heroically changes the outcomes; Hyman Weiss, would-be successor to Harry Houdini, failing at every attempt to re-create such illusions as the Tortures of the Procrustean Bed, ends up pulling off the most stupendous stunt of all; and Itchy Kabakoff, outcast and grifter, constantly on the move with a traveling carnival, carries as his baggage the memories of three generations of the Kabakoff clan. Steve Stern, a Sholom Aleichem on the Mississippi, is a consummate spinner of tales, a mythmaker. A Plague of Dreamers brilliantly evokes the American Jewish experience, weaving a tapestry of tradition and assimilation and, ultimately, of transformation.
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Stern's captivating tales of the inhabitants of the Pinch, a teeming Jewish community in Memphis, blend yeasty realism and soaring fantasy. The first of the three novellas, ``Zelig Rifkin and the Tree of Dreams,'' features a nerdy grocer's assistant who, by climbing an old oak, can tune into sleepers' dreams and even intervene in their dreamscapes. In ``Hyman the Magnificent,'' set in 1927, a stage magician obsessed with duplicating the stunts of Harry Houdini suffers repeated accidents, but wins over his girlfriend after a near-death experience. In ``Annals of the Kabakoffs,'' the book's most powerful story, Stern follows the fortunes of Itchy (Isaac) Kabakoff, a thief and ladies' man who rebels against his father, a hard-driving printer named Moses, and joins a traveling carnival in the late 1950s. Moses's illicit union with his seductive Aunt Laylah--a semimythic figure based on female demons of Jewish lore--drives the printer to self-exile in a hippie commune. Then Itchy falls madly in love with Laylah, unaware of a secret in her past. The strongest characterization is Itchy's scholarly grandfather Yankel, who, kidnapped by thugs in the Ukraine, was forced to serve for years in the czar's army. While all the tales are beguiling, ``Annals'' suggests that one of these days Stern may be a worthy successor to Isaac Bashevis Singer. (Jan . )
Library Journal
A talented writer of fiction and Judaica, Stern has earned both an O. Henry Prize and a Pushcart Writer's Choice Award. These anachronistic novellas, which are set in 1920s Tennessee in the ``forgotten'' Jewish community of Pinch, portray characters who are both pessimistic and downtrodden. Zelik, Hyman, and the three Kabakoff men share similar traits. As misfits and loners, they are all failures who would prefer to observe rather than to act. Coming out of dysfunctional families, they are treated with scorn by their peers. They know they are different; they long to conform but favor invisibility in their efforts to find redemption. Stern writes a reminiscence/fantasy--with a kick. Is he being derisive or sympathetic in pointing out his people's foibles? Sometimes it is difficult to tell. Recommended for public libraries.-- Ellen R. Cohen, Rockville, Md.
Mary Carroll
Stern, author of "Harry Kaplan's Adventures Underground" (1991), returns to the Pinch, an immigrant Jewish community in Memphis, for three tales of young men's hopes and fears, fantasies and realities. In "Zelik Rifkin and the Tree of Dreams," the title character gains and then loses the power to dabble in his neighbors' dreams between one ovenlike Memphis summer and the next. The relentless effort of "Hyman the Magnificent" to replicate the success of the recently deceased Harry Houdini--who was born a Weiss, just like the orphaned Hymie--leaves the obsessed young man multiply bloodied but decidedly unbowed. And Stern's final novella, the longest piece in this collection, wanders through three generations of Kabakoffs, from black sheep Itchy to his driven assimilationist father, Moses, and then to immigrant Yankel, along with their "relations"--from a dilapidated Pinch and the cookie-cutter Memphis suburbs back to Russia a century earlier. Stern's vivid characters experience the dilemma the aged Yankel Kabakoff articulates: "They got a choice, the Jews. They can live in the Book or in the world." In their antic adventures at the intersection of day and night, fact and faith, the Old World and the New, these young men inhabit a world whose strangeness--as well as its warmth and humor--will appeal to readers of many ethnicities.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780684195322
  • Publisher: Scribner
  • Publication date: 1/28/1994
  • Pages: 256

Table of Contents

Zelik Rifkin and the Tree of Dreams 1
Hyman the Magnificent 57
The Annals of the Kabakoffs 113
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