The novella — that form of fiction pitched somewhere between the limits of a short story and the roominess of a novel — isn't so hard to find so long as you know where to look. And two places to look are Melville House and Miami University Press. There you'll find two new novellas. One, The North of God, is by native Memphian Steve Stern, who teaches creative writing at Skidmore College, and the other, A Fight in the Doctor's Office, is by native Virginian Cary Holladay, professor of English and interim coordinator of creative writing at the University of Memphis.
Stern's book — one in a series of handy, handsomely designed paperbacks from Melville House called "The Contemporary Art of the Novella" — is signature Stern, an author who made his name writing about Memphis' Pinch district and its early-20th-century Jewish denizens. In The North of God, the setting isn't the Pinch, though. It's a remote Carpathian village, and the focus is Hershel Khevreman, a yeshiva scholar who is barely 16 but engaged to Shifra Puah, just 13 and with the body of "an empty pillow slip" and a face "the hue of a biscuit dipped in borscht." You get the picture. Poor Shifra gets the shaft. Blame it on a demon daughter of Lilith who exits a mirror and makes life a hell-on-earth for Hershel. Or is it a match made in heaven? Better to call it a sexual free-for-all between Hershel and Salka the succubus. But it's pure hell when the story switches gears — to a cattle car and its occupants: Eastern European Jews. Their destination, according to the Nazi officer in charge: "the place where all stories end." But it isn't where the story of Hershel ends. He's on his way to a career in the Yiddish theater in America, and The North of God is no downer. It's by turns delirious and blasphemous, dreamy and dead-serious. Translation: It's Steve Stern in top comic form.
Holladay's in top form too according to the judges in last year's Miami University Press novella contest: They awarded the prize to A Fight in the Doctor's Office, and if Hershel is minus his Shifra, Jenny Hall Havener, age 22, is minus her "Topiary." That's the name Jenny gave the husband who abandoned her after a mere three months of marriage. But he's replaced in Jenny's affections by Benjamin, a deaf and dumb African-American toddler in the tiny town of Glen Allen, Virginia. The year is 1967, Jenny's on her own, but she's not alone. There's Hattie and Woodrow, Benjamin's suspicious great-grandparents. There's Shirley, a 9-year-old better versed in the natural world than Jenny will ever be. And there's Clell, a handyman versed in what it takes to reach Jenny's bed. A man named Murad? He's the Turkish photographer in Richmond who rescues Jenny from her unrealizable dreams by setting her sights aright. Translation: It's Cary Holladay, in A Fight in the Doctor's Office, as sensitive to character as she is to time and place and in winning form.
For more on the local writing front this month, head not to Steve Stern's Pinch but The Pinch. That's the semiannual literary magazine produced under the auspices of the Creative Writing Program at the U of M, and the fall issue is available. Look for short stories, poetry, and artwork by a list of national contributors. Look too for an interview with poet C.K. Williams, who was guest of the U of M's 2007/2008 River City Writers Series.
Then look to the life of Robert Johnson, not in the pages of The Pinch but in the November issue of Vanity Fair and inside Tom Graves' Crossroads: The Life and Afterlife of Blues Legend Robert Johnson, available this month from Marquette Books. Graves — himself a graduate of the MFA writing program at the U of M, a music journalist, a novelist, and a teacher at LeMoyne-Owen College — does what can be done to separate fact from fiction and correct the lies, exaggerations, misperceptions, and half-truths when it comes to the legendary Delta bluesman, a man even his friend Johnny Shines would describe as unknowable. And that includes Johnson's exact date of birth and the exact site of his grave. What we do know: When Johnson worked his guitar in some juke joint, in the admiring words of Son House, "He was gone!" Be on hand when Tom Graves signs copies of Crossroads at Davis-Kidd Booksellers on Saturday, October 18th, at 1 p.m.