Ask writer Steve Stern about his popularity among readers in general and his readership in his hometown, Memphis, and the answer is hard reality mixed with modesty, which makes the author's quick response to the question classic Steve Stern:
"I don't think I have a big readership anywhere. But Memphis is perhaps the only place I can actually fill a bookstore at a signing. And believe me, I don't take that for granted. I did a reading in Brooklyn last week and arrived to a totally empty house, the bookseller there saying, finally, 'Well, let's go have a beer.'"
Stern was thankful for the offer. He could have easily sat at that event in Brooklyn wondering what he was doing there. As was the case, years ago, when Stern was invited to appear at the Memphis Jewish Community Center, a scene he recalled in a recent phone interview:
"Somebody thought it would be a great idea for me to sell books at the JCC. I had the flu, felt awful. I just sat there for an entire afternoon while all these Jews would walk by, look askant, as if to say, 'What are you doing? Who are you? Why are you here?' That was back in Plague of Dreamers time."
By A Plague of Dreamers, Stern was referring to his book of novellas from 1994 — before Stern's short-story collection The Wedding Jester won the National Jewish Book Award in 2000, before he was featured in a 2005 profile, titled "He's a Literary Darling Looking for Dear Readers," in The New York Times, before his novels The Angel of Forgetfulness (2006) and The Frozen Rabbi (2010), and before now and Stern's latest, The Book of Mischief: New and Selected Stories, from Graywolf Press.
Stern, who teaches at Skidmore College in upstate New York, was still in Brooklyn when reached by phone a few days before he's to be at Burke's Book Store. He'll be in Memphis to sign and read from The Book of Mischief, a collection of 17 short stories (some of them dating back to the 1980s, a handful appearing for the first time in book form) that revisit Stern's patented preoccupations — Jewish folklore and Jewish mysticism, the intersection of heaven and earth, past worlds and the present day: the Pinch neighborhood once centered around Memphis' North Main Street; New York's Lower East Side; Europe; and, in the case of Stern's high comedy in The Wedding Jester, the Catskills.
"High comedy," however, you wouldn't use to describe one of Stern's newer, most audacious stories, "On Jacob's Ladder" (the scene: the chimney of a concentration camp's crematorium and the remains of the heavenly creature lodged there). Low comedy (way low) is more like it to describe "The Ballad of Mushie Momzer," a work that even Stern called "the most miserable story" he's ever written. His editor at the literary journal Prairie Schooner called it "disgusting," but the story was published anyway. Good thing, because it was a Pushcart Prize winner. ("Read the first paragraph," Stern said in our interview. "See if it doesn't want you to distance yourself from me and my work forever more.")
Bright spots, here and there, though: That describes Stern's "Legend of the Lost," which features the mild-mannered but death-defying Mendy Dreyfus and his girlfriend, Blossom Wurzberg (opening scene: the Mid-South Fair; closing event: the end of the world), and "The Man Who Would Be Kafka," which manages to combine a nebbishy scholar, a potty-mouth whore, the legend of the Golem, a giant insect, today's Prague, and a happy ending.
"They do tend to be darker. They're kind of sobering to see," Stern admitted of the newer stories in The Book of Mischief. "'Jacob's Ladder' is so dark it surprised me that Graywolf wanted to include it here. The stories are not all dark, though. If I see an opportunity for a happy ending, I will seize it. But it doesn't occur too often."
Nor does the opportunity for Steve Stern to deliver a homily. In fact, it's never happened. But it's going to happen here in Memphis, when, on the invitation of Rabbi Micah Greenstein, Stern speaks during Friday-night services at Temple Israel.
"I guess I'll read a short piece," Stern said of the event, "then take my heretical carcass off the altar."
Steve Stern reads from and signs copies of The Book of Mischief at Burke's Book Store on Thursday, September 20th, from 5:30 to 7 p.m., with the reading beginning at 6 p.m. If you can't attend, order a signed and inscribed copy by calling the store at 278-7484 or by going to burkesbooks.com.