The Washington Post
The Angel of Forgetfulnessby Steve Stern
When Steve Stern appeared on the literary scene The New York Times Book Review hailed him as “a prodigiously talented writer who arrives unheralded like one of the apparitions in his own stories.” In his new novel, The Angel of Forgetfulness, he interweaves three stories about characters who take flight from their ordinary lives and are/i>/i>
When Steve Stern appeared on the literary scene The New York Times Book Review hailed him as “a prodigiously talented writer who arrives unheralded like one of the apparitions in his own stories.” In his new novel, The Angel of Forgetfulness, he interweaves three stories about characters who take flight from their ordinary lives and are plunged into extraordinary circumstances. At the center of it all is an unfinished manuscriptan adventure about a fallen angel named Mocky and his half-mortal son Nachman, who both take up residence on the Lower East Side of New York circa 1900. Their story has been written by Nathan Hart, a timid proofreader for The Jewish Daily Forward, who woos a young woman named Keni with his exotic tale. Seduced by the power of his own imagination, Nathan is drawn deliriously away from Keni into the world of his story, the Jewish underworld of arsonists, horse poisoners, and thieves. More than half a century later, Keni, on her deathbed, gives Nathan's now-tattered manuscript to her young nephew, Saul, with the injunction that Saul complete the story himself. Saul's evasion of the task prompts a journey into the crucible of the sixties, one fueled by sex, drugs, and the dust of a golem in the attic of a medieval synagogue in Prague.
Dexterously juggling the narratives of Saul, Nathan, Mocky, and Nachman until they all merge in the novel's satisfying close, Stern has created a magical tour de force of the storyteller's art, one that celebrates the turbulent romance between past and present, art and obsession.
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The New York Times
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Read an Excerpt
The ANGEL of FORGETFULNESS
By Steve Stern
VIKINGCopyright © 2005 Steve Stern
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe end of forgetfulness is the beginning of remembrance. -ABRAHAM ABULAFIA
"Gib mir ayn kush," said my aged Aunt Keni in a Yiddish made comprehensible by the fishy pucker of her desiccated lips. "Give me a kiss."
I made to peck her parched cheek, tinged with rouge, but she turned her head so that I found my lips pressing hers. A moment's suction and their flinty texture softened and became moist. Her spine elongated into a graceful swan's-neck curve and her dowager's hump disappeared. Her faded pumpkin dye job turned crimson down to the slate gray roots, her milky eyes behind their thick lenses cleared to an emerald green, and she was again a glimmering girl.
I'm lying. In fact, I was the one who was transfigured by the kiss, though the metamorphosis would take years to complete.
I was lonely in New York in 1969. I'd come from the South with great expectations, certain that the city would somehow change me from a timid misfit into an intense if melancholy young hero. A poète maudit. I longed, so I thought, for the reckless bohemian life, the dérèglement de tous les sens, and believed that New York City, through the crucible of its charged atmosphere, would effect that transformation overnight. Women, of whom (at the age of nineteen) I'd had no prior experience, would also be a natural appurtenance to such a life, though I seldom admitted the prospect even to myself. A homely kid with a wayward imagination, I'd managed to parlay my bare bones and pockmarked face into a self-image of authentic grotesquery. I was convinced that no woman of valor and substance could ever want me, and therein lay the source of the sorrowful nature that had wounded me into writing poems.
But New York in 1969 was not hospitable to my brand of wistful self-pity. In truth, I was tired of it myself, but the exotic character into which I was supposed to evolve had yet to show any manifest symptoms. I'd grown up in a squat brick ranch house on a flat grid of squat brick ranch houses in an otherwise barren suburb of Memphis, Tennessee, yearning for mystery and romance. My past? As a kid I tore up the floorboards under my bed to lower myself into the crawl space beneath the house and from there tunnel to the land of heart's desire. I hung my Zorro costume in a conduit space for water pipes behind the linen closet in the bathroom. From the attic I had a furtive access to this casket-size space; I could slide down the brass pipes to the bottom and, braving a native claustrophobia, don my black cape, hat, and mask; then, removing a small wooden panel, I would wriggle through the wall and burst out of the linen closet from beneath the bottom shelf with plastic sword drawn. I did this once when my little sister was in the bathtub, frightening her to the point of trauma, after which I took better care to conceal my secret life.
But in New York City, secrets were everywhere being divulged. Wild talents traditionally confined to artistic endeavors had spilled into the tawdry streets, and while there was rage in the air and a pervasive sense of imminent apocalypse (which no doubt served as a spur), there was also an ongoing carnival atmosphere. Wearing costumes like medieval jugglers, gowns out of pre-Raphaelite portraits, their flowing hair woven into elflocks and braids, my peers seemed shy of nothing in experience. They took the chemical sacraments that allowed them to duck deftly in and out of history. Although they might appear to be amorously cavorting in your very midst-on the leaf-dappled lawns of parks in the afternoons, in blacklit windows at dusk-you shouldn't be deceived; for they had escaped time for a season in eternity, abandoning rathole apartments to take up residence in music and dreams. It was a climate whose unbridled vitality intimidated me to near paralysis on my arrival from Memphis, which had always been a cozy place for wishing you were elsewhere in.
Now that I was someplace else, however, I was disappointed to find myself so out of tune with the spirit of the moment. Where I was audacious only in my fantasies, the young people of New York City dared to be antic in the broad light of day. It was a situation that prompted my further retreat into diffidence, until I began to feel afraid of almost everything. Always a tolerable if uninspired student, I felt out of my element at the Washington Square College of New York University, where I'd persuaded my family to foot the bill for a trial semester. The other students seemed devilishly clever, the aggressiveness of the classroom dialogues like games of crack-the-whip, which you joined by attaching yourself to the stinging tip of the lash. Neither had I managed to make peace with my sardonic suitemates in our Tenth Street dormitory, converted from a residential hotel. (Along whose corridors you sometimes saw the few surviving old residents scuttling beetlelike out of elevators and into stairwells.) Ambitious scholars-one a tightly wound mathematics wizard, the other a paunchy economics savant, my suitemates liked to address each other in the language of vaudeville comics, judging me for my sullen disposition and slovenly habits "an unregenerate outsider, Mr. Gallagher." This from the math wizard, to whom the economist would reply, "Belongs among the unwashed Gypsy types overrunning our nation like locusts, Mr. Shean." At first it was flattering to be identified with the allegedly free spirits of Greenwich Village, and I sometimes went out of my way to try to earn my suitemates' contempt-an attitude that only compounded my loneliness.
This was how things stood with me when I sought out Aunt Keni, my single blood relation in the city. Though originally a Freischutz like my mother, Keni Shendeldecker belonged to some remote hyperborean branch of the family-was there such a thing as a "great-cousin"?-and so hardly even qualified as kin; but the all-purpose title my mother had conferred on her as a girl sounded reassuring to me now. I'd never met the old lady, heard only veiled references to her from my parents: she was "an eccentric," "a poor soul," "a nut," relatively meaningless categories in a family where reading books was enough to brand you an oddity. Of course I understood that it was a measure of my desperation that I should seek out a geriatric stranger just because she had blood ties to my family. I had never felt especially close to my family, preferring to think, despite the unfortunate physical resemblance, that I was a changeling left in place of my parents' real child, who'd been stolen by trolls. Still I phoned her, and her voice at the other end of the line was as scratchy as an emery board, with an accent of the type I'd heard spoken only by stage Jews in maudlin old films. For her part she seemed less than delighted to hear from me, an unanticipated Johnny-come-lately, and her lack of enthusiasm gave me serious second thoughts. All the same, when at length she extended a perfunctory invitation, I accepted and, the following Saturday afternoon, set out to visit Aunt Keni Shendeldecker in her pensioners' high-rise on the Lower East Side.
Confirmed rather than bar mitzvahed in a southern synagogue that had refined all traces of Old World tradition out of the liturgy, I might as well have been a Methodist. (There was a pipe organ and a rabbi who wore ecclesiatical robes and an expression just this side of a rictus whenever he turned from the Ark to the congregation.) But I was Jew enough to know that the Lower East Side of New York had once had some significance as a sprawling ghetto, headquarters of East European immigrant culture; and there my knowledge (as well as my interest) ended. Nor did the blighted neighborhood, with its sooty tenements, zinc-shuttered shop fronts, and cinder-strewn lots, excite any further curiosity. To me the neighborhood looked like a place that had been ransacked by an invading army that had since moved on. Here you saw a shambling Chinese rag picker trailed by a three-legged dog, there a Hispanic family sitting in lawn chairs on the sidewalk, the father in holey underwear despite the crisp autumn air. An elderly couple waddled along the pavement: the husband in the lead wearing a skullcap like a crumpled cupola, the crumbs of his lunch in his beard, the wife following behind, putty-faced under the upturned jug of her wig. A circle of boys taunted a girl in platform shoes, while a pair of panther-sleek youths, slouched on a stoop in front of a derelict synagogue, looked on approvingly.
The building Aunt Keni lived in was one of a huddle of blood-brown monoliths looming above the congeries of bodegas and secondhand shops. Her voice over the speaker was a staticky bleat that asked me to identify myself twice before she sounded the buzzer, admitting me through an interior door. I took a shuddering elevator up twelve floors and walked down an ammoniac passage under a bulb that flickered like a dying moth, then knocked on a metal door with a mezuzah fixed diagonally to the jamb. On the other side locks turned, chains clanked as if a portcullis were being raised, and the door was opened a crack by a woman the image of a marzipan doll left in a cupboard to gather dust.
To her quizzical expression, I hastened to announce, "I'm Millie Bozoff's son." She made a face. "I knew when she was your age your mama," her throaty voice not so dissimilar from its bleat over the downstairs speaker. "An emotional girl."
That was putting it mildly; my mother was a veteran hysteric who'd spent the duration of my troubled adolescence facedown on her bed weeping disconsolately. But the accuracy of the old lady's appraisal did little to alleviate my sense of having made a grave mistake. What did I think I was doing by coming here? Didn't I already feel sorry enough for myself without complicating matters by inviting pity from some shriveled back number who'd outlived her allotted span? I was ready to admit my error and beat it back to my friendless condition, when what I saw beyond Aunt Keni's shoulder gave me pause. In fact, drawn helplessly into the small apartment, I realized I'd edged past the old woman without waiting for her to ask me in.
The room was crammed with ponderous furniture: a mahogany sideboard, a barge-size sofa, a pair of grease-stained morris chairs with cushions like craters. There was some cheesy bric-a-brac and lace-curtained windows (one with a cardboard insert to conceal a broken pane) and plaster walls of an indeterminate color practically obscured by a gallery's worth of garish paintings. Unframed and hung at drunken angles, the paintings masked the walls of what she quaintly called her "parlor." ("Take in my parlor a seat.") They were leaning on an easel that had collapsed against the altarlike sideboard, the paintings, wedged in dusty corners and stacked atop a dining table with folded wings. Those canvases whose surfaces were visible were mostly cityscapes, period street scenes with pushcarts and fire escapes, the kind of thing that, at first glance, you might have written off as nostalgia or ghetto kitsch; but look again and there was something extra. It was a something that declared the paintings in competition for their own brand of reality with the windows looking onto the pale afternoon. Rendered in custard-thick impastos drenched in rich primary hues, the buildings and figures alike appeared to be in motion, as if the atmosphere itself were intoxicated or viewed through a shimmering humidity. Fabulous details invaded the otherwise ordinary settings: a wrynecked fishmonger flanked by peddlers of pillows and eggs was hawking what looked to be a blowzy mermaid; a goose stood with its beak growing out of a barber pole around which a serpent was twined. A tar-paper rooftop was overspread by a tree in whose bare boughs Hebrew letters perched like predatory birds, and in an alley beneath clotheslines that crisscrossed like a sailing ship's tackle, a bearded man in a bloody apron wrestled an angel.
The only object besides the paintings that commanded any attention was an urn like an antique brass rocket atop the listing sideboard, about which the old woman was puttering.
"So this is your work?" was all I could think to say.
She didn't answer but began hobbling forward in her terry-cloth mules, bearing a clattering tea service with chipped porcelain cups. Myopic, she was on a collision course with an end table, which I lurched forward to shove out of her way, but, sufficiently familiar with the terrain, she managed to set down the tray on a leather hassock plumped like a toadstool between the two armchairs. "Sit already," she enjoined me, and, still transfixed by the paintings, I dropped into one of the concave armchairs, my knees risen to the level of my chin. She lowered herself by groaning degrees into the adjacent chair, then leaned forward endeavoring to serve the tea. Due to her faulty aim, she spilled at least as much into the saucers as she was able to pour into the cups, sloshing the lemon slices over their brims. I emptied the contents of the saucer back into my cup and took a sip, wincing at the astringent taste, and realized once again that I should have waited for my hostess. This was not an auspicious beginning.
"First the sugar," she told me, taking a cube out of the bowl with a hand like a badly pruned branch. She folded her turquoise tongue taco-wise about the sugar; then tilted the cup to her mouth with pinkie extended. Somewhere between fascinated and repulsed, I attempted to imitate her, scalding my own tongue as I swallowed the lump of sugar. Swallowing again to clear my craw (uglmp), I fanned my tongue, then sank into morose self-consciousness.
"Takes practice," she said tersely, and, having apparently heard my original question after all, added, "I don't do much no more the painting." Again I noticed her talonlike hands. It seemed to me at once inconceivable that this superannuated ruin could have been responsible for the circus of images swirling about us, while at the same time I thought ruefully, without knowing quite what I meant, Wouldn't you know it?
After that initial sally, conversation was temporarily stalled. I wanted to say something polite about her "art" without being too big a hypocrite. To my mind the stuff lacked all sophistication, though you wouldn't exactly have called it primitive either. What it was, her art, when you observed it with a cold eye, was frankly amateurish, if also-I had grudgingly to concede-somewhat arresting. Then there was the woman herself, shapeless as a haymow in her Hawaiian-print housedress, her spectacles dense as glass doorknobs, hennaed hair like gray shingles on fire. Her Old Country accent, though not terribly pronounced, seemed nonetheless vulgar to me, of a piece with the schmaltz and tobacco odors that enhanced the apartment's air of general decay.
Excerpted from The ANGEL of FORGETFULNESS by Steve Stern Copyright © 2005 by Steve Stern . Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Steve Stern is the author of several short story collections, including The Wedding Jester (winner of the National Jewish Book Award), Isaac and the Undertaker's Daughter (winner of a Pushcart Writer's Choice Award and an O. Henry Prize), and Lazar Malkin Enters Heaven (winner of the Edward Lewis Wallant Award for Jewish American fiction). He has also written three novels and two books for children. He teaches creative writing at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York.
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