Review of Steve Stern’s The Frozen Rabbi

My review of Steve Stern‘s new novel, The Frozen Rabbi, is up at Thought Catalog, an arts and culture site that launched last summer earlier this year. The review opens this way:

Early in Steve Stern’s 1996 short story “The Tale of a Kite,” the narrator hears some astonishing news: According to his son, a local rabbi has the power to levitate. The narrator is Jewish but not devout, so he’s outraged that his 12-year-old boy is seduced by such mystical nonsense. Even after seeing the rabbi float before his eyes, he still isn’t convinced. We, the readers, though? We believe. Stern’s charming satire succeeds by giving the rabbi a quiet nobility and by making the narrator into a comic, foolish figure —— not just for denying what he plainly sees, but for his religious hypocrisy. Here is the kind of man who’s angered at his son’s faith but convenes with his fellow Jewish businessmen to fume about it.

“The Tale of a Kite” is a very Stern-ian Stern story, typical of the kind of fiction he’s been writing for the past three decades. It’s funny, tinged with magical realism, concerned with the particulars of Judaism, and fixated on the collision between millennia-old spiritual traditions and contemporary American life. (It also takes place in Memphis, where most of his fiction is set.) This is no recipe for commercial success. In 2005 the New York Times ran a feature about Stern and his career, which has been long on critical acclaim but short on sales. The novel he was promoting at the time, The Angel of Forgetfulness, seemed poised to change his fortunes, thanks to especially glowing reviews and the support of a major publishing house. No dice: Apparently the audience for smirking literary fiction about Jewish-American life is limited to Elkin, Singer, and the “funny” Roth of the 1970s.

The bittersweet thing about being a relatively neglected fiction writer is that while many of your books may be out of print, substantive chunks of them are available on Google Books. (I haven’t followed the legal tussling around Google Books closely enough to understand who’s getting screwed as a result of that. Stern, probably.) An online version of “The Tale of a Kite” is available online too, and worth reading in itself.

Update: Not sure how I missed this, but The Frozen Rabbi is being serialized at Tablet.

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