For readers new to Steve Stern’s weird and wonderful creative world, the Pinch is the old Jewish ghetto in the author’s native Memphis. Time and again it has served as a backdrop to Stern’s poignant and antic drama, a playground on which his exuberant, larger-than-life characters can run wild.
For his latest novel, Stern not only returns to the Pinch — last seen in his previous collection of stories, “The Book of Mischief” — but appropriates its name for his title.
As if that were not enough, “The Pinch” also turns out to be the name of a book about the neighborhood. The result is an elaborately multilayered novel — a book within a book — which confuses in places but for the most part beguiles.
Stern constructs more than one narrative. The first, set in 1968, concerns Lenny Sklarew, a small-fry, accident-prone drug dealer awaiting the draft. His dead-end existence is energized by two events: He meets and falls for student Rachel, who is in town to research the roots of the Southern Jewish community, and he learns that he is a character in a musty old history book named “The Pinch.”
In order to make sense of this, and to get closer to Rachel, Lenny starts reading the book and delving into the past.
Stern’s second strand follows the exploits of the book’s author, Muni Pinsker. We see him arriving in the Pinch in 1911, reacquainting himself with his long-lost uncle Pinchas Pin and finding love with tightrope walker Jenny Bashrig.
A torturous tale of penal servitude in Siberia leads to the checkered history of the Pinch. Soon, the novel becomes an intricate patchwork of interlacing back stories, both “real” accounts and myths. Stern serves up earthquakes and floods, plus a cast of “merchants, thieves, and errant souls” that include blind black fiddler Asbestos and a “raunchy, gut-bucket blues” band called Velveeta and the Psychopimps.
At one point, Lenny tells us that “the past put the present in the shade.” It is true that the Pinch’s early 20th-century heyday is more interesting than its late ’60s incarnation.
In Muni’s era the place is vital, thriving, heaving with life. It is here that we see Stern’s fascination with Yiddish folklore and debt to Isaac Bashevis Singer, here that Stern’s brand of magic realism is most pronounced, and here that we can most appreciate Stern’s seam of black comedy — such as the scene in which a group of Jewish neighbors observes KKK members “in their Halloween finest” and try to guess who’s who.
There are moments where Stern could do with reining in rather than padding out. A madcap circus performance goes on and on, incrementally diluting the magic and leaving us to wonder if Stern does this thing better on a smaller canvas — not novels, but short stories.
Fortunately, though, “The Pinch” is composed of far more perfectly calibrated moments, all of which pulse with a dynamic inventiveness that we don’t want subdued.
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the Daily Beast. He lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.