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Steve Stern's new stories are more reason this native son be recognized.

The Wedding Jester, By Steve Stern, Graywolf Press, 223 pp., $14 (paper)

ime will tell, but let's jump the gun by announcing here and now: If Steve Stern is not the finest writer to have come out of Memphis, Tennessee, please tell me who is. Stern's two novels, two collections of short stories, and one book of novellas back that claim; The Wedding Jester, his latest collection of stories, confirms it.

True to form, Stern once again focuses on the lands (or should that be land?) of the Jews, whether the setting be a 19th-century hamlet in the Russian steppes, the teeming turn-of-the-century tenements of New York's Lower East Side, or that once-thriving, current ghost of a neighborhood known as the Pinch, its north-south axis Memphis' North Main. And just as true t
o form, Stern's greater map points are history and the Diaspora, to serve as horizons; tradition and religious observance, to serve as groundwork; and supernatural intervention, to serve as a vertical dimension linking heaven and earth. (How else to describe that third dimension, when, in one of Stern's more dependable devices, characters, not figuratively but literally, find themselves miraculously airborne -- magically afloat above their woes, buoyed by faith, and looking down on the world they and their fellow Jews, perforce or by choice, have made?)

Sounds like serious stuff, and is when it comes to this community of tried souls, but isn't when it comes to this same community's odds-beating ability to rise above adversity, with humor -- dark, maybe, but intact.

It would be fruitless to pick one story out of nine in The Wedding Jester as more accomplished than the rest, so let me distinguish one for its unmistakable autobiographical content. That story lends its title to the entire collection, and the setting represents a crossroads geographically and a crossroads possibly for its author: the dinosaur Catskills resort hotel the Concord, down at heel, poised for extinction, where a convention of gentile paramedics intersects with a lavish Jewish wedding party. Saul Bozoff, a writer semi-famous for his "vision of Yiddishkeit everlasting" -- a writer "who had long since decamped for the society of his phantom Jews" but whose "narrative fund" is lately "dried up" -- has grudgingly agreed to escort his aged but spry mother, up from Memphis, for the weekend-long nuptials. What Stern describes here, hilariously, is a certain segment of late-20th-century middle-class Jews come face-to-face with Old World legend in the form of a dybbuk and in the guise of a wise-cracking, mid-20th-century, stand-up comedian. Let me not spoil it by giving away the story's surprise turns, except to say that the climactic exorcism Stern describes runs neck-and-neck with some of the hoariest one-liners in Borsht Belt history before the mounting vulgarity clears. In the space provided, Saul, a self-described "artificial Jew" and "mediocrity manqué," discovers the "lost cause of his sorry self" and becomes a worthy inhabitant of "two worlds at once," the sacred and the profane, temporarily and for once, the life, rather than death, of the party.

If you do not find yourself moved and moved to laughter over this one story, "The Wedding Jester," I suggest you report as missing your funny bone and, what's more, your heart.

Not a story in this collection fails to hit the high mark set by this highly skilled author.

Steve Stern will be at Burke's Book Store (278-7484) Thursday, June 10th, for a booksigning and reading from 5 to 7 p.m.

And while we're on the subject of native sons and missing parts ... William Watkins, raised in South Carolina, isn't by definition a native son, but the city could do the honorable thing by making him an honorary one with the publication of Cassina Gambrel Was Missing (Lynx, 187 pp., $19.95), because no better cheerleader could Memphis find. A graduate of Rhodes in 1982 (the publisher's name and that school's lynx mascot can't be mere coincidence), Watkins, a freelance writer and TV producer in New York City, was in town recently to promote the book, and when he described himself by phone as a "big Memphis fan," the man meant it. The novel starts in the summer of 1978, concerns a Rhodes (then Southwestern) student named Jackson Taylor who befriends an older black woman named Cassina Gambrel, and revolves around the coming fortunes of the former in a widening world and the ultimate misfortune of the latter on the banks of the narrow Wolf River. If there's more enthusiasm than depth to the storytelling here, you can blame it on the novel being Watkins' first. But don't overlook his craftiness at pinning down a character in the space of very few words or some fancy footwork juggling past and present events. Watkins reported he's already at work on a second novel -- a "farce, a romp" about a pair of "hapless college professors" in a small Alabama town -- and there is enough evidence in Cassina Gambrel Was Missing to suggest that the broader the comedy Watkins has at his disposal, the likelier he'll uncover the spot where truths lie.


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