There Go The Neighborhoods

There Go The Neighborhoods

The old Jewish quarter of Memphis and the rundown Bronx get new life, thanks to Steve Stern and Jerome Charyn.

Diane Cole, a frequent contributor to The Jewish Week, is the author of the memoir “After Great Pain: A New Life Emerges” and writes for The Wall Street Journal, NPR online and other publications.

Call him the Bard of Jewish Memphis. As in previous works, in his latest novel, “The Pinch: A History, A Novel,” author Steve Stern brings to life the formerly bustling, now blighted Memphis neighborhood called “The Pinch.” Also, once again, Stern’s fictional re-creation is characterized by a fanciful collage of kabbalistic magic, mystical longings, and Jewish folklore galore.

Stern deliberately confuses fact and fiction, starting with the title, which slyly declares the book both a history and a novel. In fact, the neighborhood informally known as the Pinch (as in pinched finances) actually was the section of town favored by the city’s East European Jewish immigrant families from the time of their arrival in the 1880s and on through the first decades of the 20th century, when more affluent and suburban areas began luring them away.

Just how quickly urban history recedes in memory is reflected by the fact that Stern, himself a native of Memphis, had never heard of this one-time Jewish enclave until the 1980s, when a job at the local folklore center led him to begin recording oral histories of the old-timers who had been born and bred in, and had subsequently fled from, the Pinch. At this point, several decades later, how many people remain alive who still remember — or have heard the embroidered remembrances of others, which they embellish and pass on in turn — the vibrant streets and domestic dramas of that long-ago Jewish shtetl of the American South? In this way, from generation to generation, history slides into myth.

Perhaps it’s no wonder, then, that in Stern’s conjuring, the Pinch is an ethereal place, part-dream, part-nightmare, sui generis. Here, I.B. Singer-like elves roam the streets, and a Messianic rabbi sees into the future as easily as into the past. Presiding over the central square is an extraordinarily tall, deep-rooted tree that seems to have emerged from the magical jungles of the novels of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Several characters sound like a mixture of Sholem Aleichem and Groucho Marx, topped off with a touch of Zen wisdom. Time itself seems unbound as Stern toggles back and forth from chapter to chapter, between eras ranging from the 1880s to 1968.

The book opens in February 1968, against the backdrop of the Memphis sanitation workers strike and civil rights protests that readers know will tragically build up to the assassination, two months later, of Martin Luther King, Jr. But the civil rights struggle is only of secondary interest to Lenny Sklarew, a draft-age hippie and part-time drug-dealer who whiles away his days working at The Book Asylum, a used book store run by Holocaust survivor Avrom Slutsky in the by-then gritty, mostly abandoned Pinch neighborhood. It’s there that Lenny comes across an illustrated book called “The Pinch: A History,” with a copyright date of 1952. But when Lenny flips through its pages, much to his astonishment, he finds himself mentioned as a neighborhood inhabitant in the current year of 1968. What’s going on?

On one level, it’s a self-referential technique known as metafiction. On another, it’s an amusing literary trick that signals that more storytelling sleight-of-hand is sure to follow.

And it does. As the book (and the book within the book) flashes backwards and forwards, we learn of Muni Pinsker’s miraculous escape from a czarist Siberian prison camp in 1910, and his subsequent trek across the world to the safe haven of his uncle Pinchas Pin’s general store. (Time travel alert: that’s the very same building, long abandoned, in which Lenny finds himself living as a squatter in 1968.) We sigh at Muni’s doomed romance with the immigrant girl-next-door, who happens to be a skilled tightrope walker bound for the circus. We laugh out loud as Pinchas Pin plots out an unexpected courtship of the woman who rescued him from the coffin into which he had been about to be buried alive. Then there’s the tale of the unprecedented earthquake brought about by the fervent prayers of chasidic wonder workers — or, in an alternative explanation, by the ecstatic lovemaking of Muni and his tightrope walker.

Stern’s powers of invention are endless, and the yarns that comprise his “history” of the Pinch are by turns charming, amusing, touching, devastating. But as one story gives way to another and yet another, after a while a sense of rambling repetition begins to set in, especially when some of these stories actually are repeated or retold from different points of view. Stern is an excellent short story writer, as demonstrated in his aptly titled collection, “The Book of Mischief.” He also can write a deftly structured novel encompassing many eras, as in his satiric masterpiece, “The Frozen Rabbi.” As for “The Pinch,” I’d say that regardless of what its title declares, it’s neither a history nor a novel. Regard it instead as a collective portrait of the Pinch, as conceived in Stern’s unbounded imagination and made real as only fiction can, through a series of entertainingly executed fables of a world that may, or may not, have existed.

Inventive as he is prolific, author Jerome Charyn has published nearly 50 books over the course of his 50-year writing career. About two-thirds of his output has been fiction, the rest a wide-ranging mix of memoir, cultural history and whatever subject has caught his fancy, from table tennis to Jewish-American gangsters to the great Russian author Isaac Babel. But the backdrop for many of these works, both fiction and non-fiction, is the Bronx, where Charyn was born in 1937.

So it is with his latest work of fiction, “Bitter Bronx.” The 13 short stories collected here are less about the borough’s broken-down neighborhoods than the broken souls of the characters who populate some of its meaner streets, and a few who dwell among its leafier oases. Nonetheless, in an author’s note, Charyn introduces readers to the Bronx he remembers from his childhood, a place composed of one tightly knit ethic or working-class enclave after another. No more, he writes, thanks to the controversial urban renewal projects of New York power broker and master builder Robert Moses.

It was Moses who pushed through the construction of the Cross Bronx Expressway, without regard to the countless businesses and entire neighborhoods torn down in its wake, or to the decay and dereliction to which its pathway consigned large swathes of a South Bronx that is now, a generation or more later, in the throes of a revival. And Charyn does not hesitate to finger Moses as the source of bitterness and defeat felt by some of his protagonists. In “Lorelei,” the book’s best story, a con man finds himself eerily drawn back to the formerly grand, now rundown apartment building where he had grown up. Against all expectations, he finds his childhood sweetheart from long ago and her father in his same long-ago residence. It is only with the greatest willpower he can muster that he fights their attempts to lure him to join them in their ghoulish death-in-life existence.

The Bronx that Robert Moses made is also present in “Major Leaguer,” which features an undistinguished former baseball player scratching out a living as superintendent of another decrepit apartment building who discovers the consequences of unwittingly catching the eye of a local drug lord. “Milo’s Last Chance” tells the story of a teacher who discovers his métier teaching at a woebegone Bronx high school populated by students everyone else has given up on. He also rediscovers there the lost love of his life — whom he finds a way to lose once again. “Dee” dramatizes in fiction the long-time friendship between the photographer Diane Arbus and Eddie Carmel, the so-called Jewish Giant, whom she captured in one of her most famous pictures as he looms over his parents in their Bronx apartment.

Other stories predate the calamity of the Cross Bronx Expressway. Set in the early 1950s, “Adonis” and “Archy and Mehitabel” recount the scurrilous adventures of an adolescent male fashion catalogue model torn between his working-class Bronx origins and the glamour he glimpses amid the corrupt Mob-infested society to which his job introduces him.

Still other tales focus on characters who have either left the Bronx and found financial success — but not happiness — in Manhattan, or who have scoped out havens in some out-of-the-way corner. Whatever the theme, Charyn’s style is cinematic and rapid fire, flashing from scene to scene, and mixing elements of the macabre with strains of film noir. Some are no more than anecdotes, but they are uniformly entertaining, sometimes surprising, best read in spurts. Think of Charyn as a scribbler of the Bronx.