The Book of Mischief: New and Selected Storiesby Steve Stern
"In the 25 years since [Stern] published his first book, younger Jewish writers have run with a similar shtick . . . But Stern was there first." The Toronto Globe and Mail
The Book of Mischief triumphantly showcases twenty-five years of outstanding work by one of our true masters of the short story. Steve Stern/i>/i>/i>/i>/b>/b>
"In the 25 years since [Stern] published his first book, younger Jewish writers have run with a similar shtick . . . But Stern was there first." The Toronto Globe and Mail
The Book of Mischief triumphantly showcases twenty-five years of outstanding work by one of our true masters of the short story. Steve Stern's stories take us from the unlikely old Jewish quarter of the Pinch in Memphis to a turn-of-thecentury immigrant community in New York; from the market towns of Eastern Europe to a down-at-the-heels Catskills resort. Along the way we meet a motley assortment of characters: Mendy Dreyfus, whose bungee jump goes uncannily awry; Elijah the prophet turned voyeur; and the misfit Zelik Rifkin, who discovers the tree of dreams. Perhaps it's no surprise that Kafka's cockroach also makes an appearance in these pages, animated as they are by instances of bewildering transformation. The earthbound take flight, the meek turn incendiary, the powerless find unwonted fame. Weaving his particular brand of mischief from the wondrous and the macabre, Stern transforms us all through the power of his brilliant imagination.
“Stern's stories are suffused with nostalgia for this lost world. . . . Nothing goes unobserved.” The New York Times Book Review
“[Stern is] a dazzling stylist. . . . The soulful stories in The Book of Mischief deserve to be found.” Dallas Morning News
“Filled with pathos and humor. . . . At its most poignant, Stern's writing . . . peels away at the membranes that divide the present from the past.” The New Republic
“A magisterial collection. . . . Stern's universe is a funny one, but he's honest enough to notice that sometimes we're the punch line.” Cleveland Plain Dealer
“Stern's prose fuses the magical and the mundane, with an offhandedness that makes the normal seem odd, and the truly odd seem matter of fact. . . . mesmerizing.” Bookslut
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The Book of Mischief
New and Selected Stories
By Steve Stern
Graywolf PressCopyright © 2012 Steve Stern
All rights reserved.
The Tale of a Kite
It's safe to say that we Jews of North Main Street are a progressive people. I don't mean to suggest we have any patience with freethinkers, like that crowd down at Thompson's Café; tolerant within limits, we're quick to let subversive elements know where they stand. Observant (within reason), we keep the Sabbath after our fashion, though the Saturday competition won't allow us to close our stores. We keep the holidays faithfully, and are regular in attending our modest little synagogue on Market Square. But we're foremost an enterprising bunch, proud of our contribution to the local economy. Even our secondhand shops contain up-to-date inventories, such as stylish automobile capes for the ladies, astrakhan overcoats for gentlemen — and our jewelers, tailors, and watchmakers are famous all over town. Boss Crump and his heelers, who gave us a dispensation to stay open on Sundays, have declared more than once in our presence, "Our sheenies are good sheenies!" So you can imagine how it unsettles us to hear that Rabbi Shmelke, head of that gang of fanatics over on Auction Street, has begun to fly.
We see him strolling by the river, if you can call it strolling. Because the old man, brittle as a dead leaf, doesn't so much walk as permit himself to be dragged by disciples at either elbow. A mournful soul on a stick, that's Rabbi Shmelke; comes a big wind and his bones will be scattered to powder. His eyes above his foggy pince-nez are a rheumy residue in an otherwise parchment face, his beard (Ostrow calls it his "lunatic fringe") an ashen broom gnawed by mice. Living mostly on air and the strained generosity of in-laws, his followers are not much more presentable. Recently transplanted from Shpink, some godforsaken Old World backwater that no doubt sent them packing, Shmelke and his band of crackpots are a royal embarrassment to our community.
We citizens of Hebrew extraction set great store by our friendly relations with our gentile neighbors. One thing we don't need is religious zealots poisoning the peaceable atmosphere. They're an eyesore and a liability, Shmelke's crew, a threat to our good name, seizing every least excuse to make a spectacle. They pray conspicuously in questionable attire, dance with their holy books in the street, their doddering leader, if he speaks at all, talking in riddles. No wonder we judge him to be frankly insane.
It's my own son, Ziggy the kaddish, who first brings me word of Shmelke's alleged levitation. Then it's a measure of his excitement that, in reporting what he's seen, he also reveals he's skipped Hebrew school to see it. This fact is as troubling to me as his claims for the Shpinker's airborne faculty, which I naturally discount. He's always been a good boy, Ziggy, quiet and obedient, if a little withdrawn, and it's unheard of that he should play truant from his Talmud Torah class. Not yet bar mitzvahed, the kid has already begun to make himself useful around the store, and I look forward to the day he comes into the business as my partner. (I've got a sign made up in anticipation of the event: J. Zipper & Son, Spirits and Fine Wines.) So his conduct is distressing on several counts, not the least of which is how it shows the fanatics' adverse influence on our youth.
"Papa!" exclaims Ziggy, bursting through the door from the street — since when does Ziggy burst? "Papa, Rabbi Shmelke can fly!"
"Shah!" I bark. "Can't you see I'm with a customer?" This is my friend and colleague Harry Nussbaum, proprietor of Memphis Bridge Cigars, whose factory supports better than fifteen employees and is located right here on North Main. Peeling bills from a bankroll as thick as a bible, Nussbaum's in the process of purchasing a case of Passover wine. (From this don't conclude that I'm some exclusively kosher concern; I carry also your vintage clarets and sparkling burgundies, blended whiskeys and sour mash for the yokels, brandies, cordials, brut champagnes — you name it.)
Nussbaum winces, clamping horsey teeth around an unlit cigar. "Shomething ought to be done about thosh people," he mutters, and I heartily concur. As respected men of commerce, we both belong to the executive board of the North Main Street Improvement Committee, which some say is like an Old Country kahal. We chafe at the association, regarding ourselves rather as boosters, watchdogs for the welfare of our district. It's a responsibility we don't take lightly.
When Nussbaum leaves, I turn to Ziggy, his jaw still agape, eyes bugging from his outsize head. Not from my side of the family does he get such a head, bobbling in his turtleneck like a pumpkin in an eggcup. You'd think it was stuffed full of wishes and big ideas, Ziggy's head, though to my knowledge it remains largely vacant.
"You ought to be ashamed of yourself."
"But, Papa, I seen it." Breathless, he twists his academy cap in his hands. "We was on the roof and we peeped through the skylight. First he starts to pray, then all of a sudden his feet don't touch the floor ..."
"I said, enough!"
Then right away I'm sorry I raised my voice. I should be sorry? But like I say, Ziggy has always been a pliant kid, kind of an amiable mediocrity. Not what you'd call fanciful — where others dream, Ziggy merely sleeps — I'm puzzled he should wait till his twelfth year to carry such tales. I fear he's fallen in with a bad crowd.
Still, it bothers me that I've made him sulk. Between my son and me there have never been secrets — what's to keep secret? — and I don't like how my temper has stung him into furtiveness. But lest he should think I've relented, I'm quick to add, "And never let me hear you played hooky from cheder again."
And that, for the time being, is that.
But at our weekly meeting of the Improvement Committee — to whose board I'm automatically appointed on account of my merchant's credentials — the issue comes up again. It seems that others of our children have conceived a fascination for the Shpinker screwballs, and as a consequence are becoming wayward in their habits. Even our chairman Irving Ostrow of Ostrow's Men's Furnishings, in the tasteful showroom of which we are assembled — even his own son Hershel, known as an exemplary scholar, has lately been delinquent in his studies.
"He hangs around that Auction Street shtibl," says an incredulous Ostrow, referring to the Hasids' sanctuary above Klotwog's Feed Store. "I ask him why and he tells me, like the mountains should tremble" — Ostrow pauses to sip his laxative tea — "'Papa,' he says, 'the Shpinker rebbe can fly.' 'Rebbe' he calls him, like an alter kocker!"
"Godhelpus!" we groan in one voice — Nussbaum, myself, Benny Rosen of Rosen's Delicatessen — having heard this particular rumor once too often. We're all of a single mind in our distaste for such fictions — all save old Kaminsky, the synagogue beadle ("Come-insky" we call him for his greetings at the door to the shul), who keeps the minutes of our councils.
"Maybe the Shmelke, he puts on the children a spell," he suggests out of turn, which is the sort of hokum you'd expect from a beadle.
At length we resolve to nip the thing in the bud. We pass along our apprehensions to the courtly Rabbi Fein, who runs the religious school in the synagogue basement. At our urgency he lets it be known from the pulpit that fraternizing with Hasids, who are after all no better than heretics, can be hazardous to the soul. He hints at physical consequences as well, such as warts and blindness. After that nothing is heard for a while about the goings-on in the little hall above the feed store that serves as the Shpinkers' sanctuary.
What does persist, however, is a certain (what you might call) bohemianism that's begun to manifest itself among even the best of our young. Take, for instance, the owlish Hershel Ostrow: in what he no doubt supposes a subtle affectation — though who does he think he's fooling? — he's taken to wearing his father's worn-out homburg; and Mindy Dreyfus, the jeweler's son, has assumed the Prince Albert coat his papa has kept in mothballs since his greenhorn days. A few of the older boys sport incipient beards like the characters who conspire to make bombs at Thompson's Café, where in my opinion they'd be better off. Even my Ziggy, whom we trust to get his own hair cut, he talks Plott the barber into leaving the locks at his temples. He tries to hide them under his cap, which he's begun to wear in the house, though they spiral out like untended runners.
But it's not so much their outward signs of eccentricity as their increasing remoteness that gets under our skin. Even when they're present at meals or their after-school jobs, their minds seem to be elsewhere. This goes as well for Ziggy, never much of a noise to begin with, whose silence these days smacks more of wistful longing than merely having nothing to say.
"Mama," I frown at my wife, Ethel, who's shuffling about the kitchen of our apartment over the liquor store. I'm enjoying her superb golden broth, afloat with eyes of fat that gleam beneath the gas lamp like a peacock's tail; but I nevertheless force a frown. "Mama, give a look on your son."
A good-natured, capable woman, my Ethel, with a figure like a brick mikveh, as they say, she seldom sits down at meals. She prefers to eat on the run, sampling critical spoonfuls as she scoots back and forth between the table and the coal-burning range. At my suggestion, however, she pauses, pretending to have just noticed Ziggy, who's toying absently with his food.
"My son? You mean this one with the confetti over his ears?" She bends to tease his side locks, then straightens, shaking her head. "This one ain't mine. Mine the fairies must of carried him off and left this in his place." She ladles more soup into the bowl he's scarcely touched. "Hey, stranger, eat your knaidel."
Still his mother's child, Ziggy is cajoled from his meditations into a grudging grin, which I fight hard against finding infectious. Surrendering, I make a joke: "Mama, I think the ship you came over on is called the Ess Ess Mein Kind."
Comes the auspicious day of Mr. Crump's visit to North Main Street. This is the political boss's bimonthly progress, when he collects his thank-yous (usually in the form of merchandise) from a grateful Jewish constituency. We have good reason to be grateful, since in exchange for votes and assorted spoils, the Red Snapper, as he's called, has waived the blue laws for our district. He also looks the other way with respect to child labor and the dry law that would have put yours truly out of business. Ordinarily Boss Crump and his entourage, including his handpicked mayor du jour, like to tour the individual shops, receiving the tributes his shvartze valet shleps out to a waiting limousine. But today, tradition notwithstanding, we're drawn out of doors by the mild April weather, where we've put together a more formal welcome.
When the chrome-plated Belgian Minerva pulls to the curb, we're assembled in front of Ridblatt's Bakery on the corner of Jackson Avenue and North Main. Irving Ostrow is offering a brace of suits from his emporium, as solemnly as a fireman presenting a rescued child, while Benny Rosen appears to be wrestling a string of salamis. Harry Nussbaum renders up a bale of cigars, myself a case of schnapps, and Rabbi Fein a ready blessing along with his perennial bread and salt. Puffed and officious in his dual capacity as neighborhood ward heeler and committee chair, Ostrow has also prepared an address: "We citizens of North Main Street pledge to be a feather in the fedora of Mayor Huey, I mean Blunt ..." (Because who can keep straight Mr.Crump's succession of puppet mayors?)
Behind us, under the bakery awning, Mickey Panitz is ready to strike up his klezmer orchestra; igniting his flash powder, a photographer from the Commercial Appeal ducks beneath a black hood. Everyone (with the exception, of course, of the Shpinker zealots, who lack all civic pride) has turned out for the event, lending North Main Street a holiday feel. We bask in Boss Crump's approval, who salutes us with a touch to the rim of his rakish straw skimmer, his smile scattering a galaxy of freckles. This is why what happens next, behind the backs of our visitors, seems doubly shameful, violating as it does such a banner afternoon.
At first we tell ourselves we don't see what we see; we think, maybe a plume of smoke. But looks askance at one another confirm not only that we share the same hallucination but that the hallucination gives every evidence of being real. Even from such a distance it's hard to deny it: around the corner of the next block, something is emerging from the roof of the railroad tenement that houses the Shpinker shtibl. It's a wispy black and gray something that rises out of a propped-open skylight like vapor from an uncorked bottle. Escaping, it climbs into the cloudless sky and hovers over North Main Street, beard and belted caftan aflutter. There's a fur hat resembling the rotary brush of a chimney sweep, a pair of dun- stockinged ankles (to one of which a rope is attached) as spindly as the handles on a scroll. Then it's clear that, risen above the telephone wires and trolley lines, above the water tanks, Rabbi Shmelke floats in a doleful ecstasy.
We begin talking anxiously and at cross-purposes about mutual understanding through public sanitation and so forth. We crank hands left and right, while Mickey Panitz leads his band in a dirgelike rendition of "Dixie." In this way we keep our notables distracted until we can pack them off (photojournalist and all) in their sable limousine. Then, without once looking up again, we repair to Ostrow's Men's Furnishings and convene an extraordinary meeting of the Improvement Committee.
Shooting his sleeves to show flashy cuff links, Ostrow submits a resolution: "I hereby resolve we dispatch to the Shpinkers a delegatz, with the ultimatum they should stop making a nuisance, which it's degrading already to decent citizens, or face a forcible outkicking from the neighborhood. All in agreement say oy."
The only dissenting voice is the one with no vote.
"Your honors know best" — this from Kaminsky, a greenhorn till his dying day — "but ain't it what you call a miracle, this flying rebbe?"
For such irrelevance we decide it also wouldn't hurt to find a new secretary.
En route across the road to the shtibl, in the company of my fellows, I give thanks for small blessings. At least my Ziggy was telling the truth about Shmelke. Though I'm thinking that, with truths like this, it's maybe better he should learn to lie.
We trudge up narrow stairs from the street, pound on a flimsy door, and are admitted by one of Shmelke's unwashed. The dim room lists slightly like the deck of a ship, tilted toward windows that glow from a half-light filtering through the lowered shades. There's a film of dust in the air that lends the graininess of a photogravure to the bearded men seated at the long table, swaying over God only knows what back- numbered lore. By the wall there's an ark stuffed with scrolls, a shelf of moldering books, spice boxes, tarnished candelabra, amulets against the evil eye.
It's all here, I think, all the blind superstition of our ancestors preserved in amber. But how did it manage to follow us over an ocean to such a far-flung outpost as Tennessee? Let the goyim see a room like this, with a ram's horn in place of a clock on the wall, with the shnorrers wrapped in their paraphernalia mumbling hocus-pocus instead of being gainfully employed, and right away the rumors start. The yids are poisoning the water, pishing on communion wafers, murdering Christian children for their blood. Right away somebody's quoting the Protocols of Zion. A room like this, give or take one flying rebbe, can upset the delicate balance of the entire American enterprise.
Returned at least in body from the clouds, old Shmelke sits at the head of the table, dispensing his shopworn wisdom. An unlikely source of authority, he appears little more substantial than the lemon shaft pouring over him from the open skylight.
"It is permitted to consult with the guardian spirits of oil and eggs ...," he intones, pausing between syllables to suck on a piece of halvah; an "Ahhh" goes up from disciples who lean forward to catch any crumbs. "... But sometimes the spirits give false answers." Another sadder but wiser "Ahhh."
When our eyes adjust to the murk, we notice that the ranks of the Shpinkers (who until now have scarcely numbered enough for a minyan) have swelled. They've been joined this afternoon, during Hebrew school hours no less, by a contingent of the sons of North Main Street, my own included. He's standing in his cockeyed academy cap, scrunched between nodding Hasids on the rebbe's left side. To my horror Ziggy, who's shown little enough aptitude for the things of this world, never mind the other, is also nodding to beat the band.
"Home!" I shout, finding myself in four-part harmony with the other committee members. Our outrage since entering having been compounded with interest, we won't be ignored anymore. But while some of the boys do indeed leave their places and make reluctantly for the door, others stand their ground. Among them is Ostrow's brainy son Hershel and my nebbish, that never before disobeyed.
Excerpted from The Book of Mischief by Steve Stern. Copyright © 2012 Steve Stern. Excerpted by permission of Graywolf Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Steve Stern, winner of the National Jewish Book Award, is the author of several previous novels and story collections, including The Frozen Rabbi and The Wedding Jester. He teaches at Skidmore College in upstate New York.
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