The protagonist of the last story in Steve Stern's career-spanning collection of short fiction, "The Book of Mischief," is a writer himself. The narrator describes his two books as "full of exotic Jewish legends translated to contemporary settings ... well received among a generation that was already half legend itself." It's a pointed (though not inapt) description of Stern's own writing, which reworks Judaica and mythology and has not enjoyed mainstream celebration. Rather than sounding embittered, this delightfully self-aware ending gives Stern an upper hand of sorts. Anticipating detractors, the end of "Mischief" renders their criticisms less potent.
But that's getting ahead of ourselves. "Mischief" is organized by geography, and in early pages of the book Stern assembles stories set in the old Jewish quarter of Memphis, called "the Pinch." Odd and wondrous things happen on the Pinch's North Main Street: men fly, boys climb trees and enter their neighbors' dreams, and Death himself appears to yank one reluctant soul into the afterlife. It's magical realism, transplanted to the American South. The stories in this first section are richly detailed and as satisfying as anything in Gabriel García Marquez, though the folkloric turns and reversals will be familiar to most readers. Eventually these structures can begin to feel repetitive. Then, too, there's the similarity of the protagonists: always a man, almost always young, usually irritatingly ineffectual.
Just as Memphis begins to feel claustrophobic, the book opens outward and skips to the Lower East Side of Manhattan, Eastern Europe and, finally, the Catskills. As the geography changes, the scope of the stories becomes larger. A wryer, more insightful voice emerges here, as does an earthy sense of humor hinted at in the Memphis stories and reaching its peak in pieces like the bawdy "The Sin of Elijah" and the excellent "The Man Who Would Be Kafka." The latter story -- featuring a timorous and harried literature professor, who, fed up with the students in his literature seminar, ventures into the seedy underbelly of Prague -- is the natural culmination point for the collection. It's gratifying but no surprise when the famed Golem of Prague appears and is none other than Kafka's Gregor Samsa in cockroach form.
The nods to Kafka and the author-avatars who half-dismiss their own books as "each more saturated in Jewish arcana than the one before" demonstrate the intelligence behind these tales. The balance between levity and the weight of history is a clever choice, too; it lends the collection an appealing air of resilience. Though Stern is by no means the only writer to mine this terrain (Jonathan Safran Foer and Michael Chabon spring to mind), "Mischief" is thoughtfully constructed and incisive, a worthwhile addition to the genre. There is more than mischief here -- there's wisdom.
S. J. Culver is a writer living in California and Texas.