Reaching toward the mythological, Steve Stern’s stories of Jewish life invite comparison with the output of such writers as Isaac Babel, Isaac Bashevis Singer, and Bernard Malamud, whose artfully applied surreal techniques can blend the apocryphal and the real, horror and mirth into apocalyptic vision. Yet Stern insists on another comparison also. In “The Ghost and Saul Bozoff,” the last of the nine stories in Lazar Malkin Enters Heaven, Stern’s direct references to “Prospero’s Cell” inevitably call to mind William Shakespeare’s play The Tempest (1611) and Prospero’s role as creator and director of all the characters on the enchanted island. Indeed, the Pinch, Stern’s Jewish neighborhood on and around North Main Street in Memphis can be seen as a kind of exotic island where the storyteller/artist can with a wave of the magic wand of language give form not only to humans but also to otherworldly spirits.
Artist figures are prominent in most of the stories. The first story in the collection, “Moishe the Just,” introduces the collection’s theme and a typical situation. Nathan Siripkin entertains his adolescent buddies and keeps them enthralled with his imagination. Nathan’s mind is characterized as an overheated brain in an outsized head stuffed with demented creatures straining to break out and run about the streets of the neighborhood. Nathan’s fabrications are given reality by the seriousness and intensity of his efforts and the collaboration of his audience. In the same way, Nathan spices up the real-life adventures of his neighbors. During the Depression, when times are becoming more dangerous for relatives across the seas, the boys spend night after night spying on their neighbors and, in response to Nathan’s continuing questions, create with their leader a puppet play of people whose lives depend on an audience to give them significance.
The more Nathan feverishly invents, the more the boys demand, until finally Nathan makes a statement that can be proved only by putting a man’s life in danger. Nathan knows this and his young disciples do, too, for only by showing that Moishe cannot die can Nathan prove that Moishe is one of the thirty-six truly just and innocent men who hold back evil in the world. Leader and disciples know the stakes, but they enter into a power struggle in which withdrawal would signify impotence and in which each side believes that the other will surrender. Together Nathan and his disciples rig a booby trap on the stage (floor) of Moishe’s room, and then they all troop to the roof with their spyglass to watch the play enact itself.
Moishe does not physically die. At the very last moment, Nathan gives in and races to Moishe’s side, arriving just in time to accept death himself as he saves Moishe. Moishe does die spiritually, however, when he realizes what has occurred, and the boys realize something more—that the death of one good and just man brings about the death of all. Simultaneously, war breaks out in Europe, North Main Street in Memphis is flooded by high waters, and the boys accept the signs foretelling the beginning of the end of the world.
The artist figure in “Lazar Malkin Enters Heaven” is Lazar himself, the quintessential Jewish peddler who refuses to accept ordinary conventions of behavior—a refusal that extends to the time of his death. For the inhabitants of the Pinch, Lazar comes to signify a great “beyond” which he regularly visits and from which he returns carrying gifts in a burlap sack for his neighbors. Lazar’s refusal to die summons the angel of death, who must...
(The entire section is 1481 words.)