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A 'Pinch' Of Magic Seasons This Half-Fantastical Neighborhood History

You may have read about an imaginary Southern piece of turf where the past presses on the present with such force that characters find themselves transformed with the pressure of it, where the landscape comes alive, where human beings seem sometimes like gods and sometimes like devils, and the language of the story lights up your mind: William Faulkner's half-historical, half-fabulized Yoknapatawpha County, yes?

No, actually, I'm thinking of Steve Stern's personal piece of the South, a commercial and domestic strip in the northwest of Memphis, a place known in that part of the world as "The Pinch," the name ostensibly derived from the malnourished — "pinched" — look of the hardscrabble immigrants, Jews, Italians and Irish immigrants who settled in that part of the city.

If you haven't read much of Stern's work, you may think my comparison is comical. But Stern's gift, seen stronger here than ever before, gives us a weird, wacky, mythologized Memphis, a sort of Yoknapatawpha County where the Torah trumps the King James Bible and rabbis have magical powers. (Along with Faulkner, perhaps we ought to conjure up Gabriel Garcia Marquez's village of Macondo as well. And maybe a pinch or two — pun intended — of Isaac Bashevis Singer and Bernard Malamud.)

The book opens in Memphis during the 1968 trash workers' strike, as a lethargic drug-dealer named Leonard Sklarew — a bit of a romantic and a bit of a schlemiel — makes the find of his life in the local bookstore where he works a day job.

"The book was called The Pinch," he tells us, "and subtitled A history. It was a bible-thick doorstop in a cheap cloth binding, its title and author — one Muni Pinsker — stamped on the cover in faded gilt lettering." Lenny flips pages, taking in the garish illustrations, and near the end of the book comes on a passage "in which a guy in a used book shop — a scrawny, hook-nosed dude named Lenny Sklarew — chances to open an undistinguished volume entitled The Pinch."

And with this little touch of the metafictional brush, Stern's celebration of a Jewish kingdom within the American South is off and running. He turns the South into a realm of, as he puts it, "lilac and cold cuts;" instead of slavery and civil war, he brings in a long sequence about Muni Pinsker's escape from the Siberian gulag and his eventual arrival in Memphis, and a send-up of minstrelsy, embossed on the cheap paper of that rare copy of the original history of the Pinch.

So, nothing cheap about the novel within this novel. It's a lavish creation tale with a soundtrack that makes an Ay yay bim bom yiddle diddle do sound in our ear. It tells many-layered, mostly joyful stories about the foibles and mores of the local inhabitants, from passionate love affairs that lead to mixed marriages to social situations as entangled as the batch of vipers one rabbi transforms into walking sticks. It gives us Jewish barbers clipping the wings of angels, it makes famous little known Southern earthquakes, it delivers us joke upon joke upon joke, and in the end dovetails history with the life-narrative of Lenny Sklarew.

The chapters of The Pinch alternate between the early days of the neighborhood and the late '60s. The circus-parade-like cast of characters — some from Yiddish lore, some from our immigrant past — and its own unclipped wingspan, help it to stand out as one of those epic renderings of our past that help us to live with and in the present.

The book bogs down now and then in its copious detail. It can also stray into the realm of the airy or the silly for its own sake – and these aspects might fool readers, as Leonard Sklarew hints, into thinking we can relax now and then and leave behind a world of garbage strikes, the Tet Offensive, and the impending assassination of Martin Luther King.

But no.

Like Lenny's, our own world is both historical and novelistic at the same time, sometimes leaning one way, sometimes the other. In a pinch about how to live best? A reading of this celebratory novel, or others like it, might serve to put life and time in perspective. Want to try it? Just turn on the Klezmer music and turn the pages: It's work, it's pleasure, it's plain, it's magic. Ay yay bim bom yiddle diddle do.

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Alan Cheuse died on July 31, 2015. He had been in a car accident in California earlier in the month. He was 75. Listen to NPR Special Correspondent Susan Stamburg's retrospective on his life and career.