Saul Bozoff doesn't know what he's getting into at first, and neither will readers of The Angel of Forgetfulness (Viking), native Memphian Steve Stern's first work of fiction in six years and his most complex, ambitious book to date.
The novel opens in 1969. Saul, from Memphis, is a lonely freshman at New York University, and his only relative in the city is his aged "Aunt" Keni. Keni is a shut-in living on the dilapidated Lower East Side, and she's been entrusted with an unfinished manuscript written by her onetime lover, Nathan. But Keni dies. Saul has the manuscript. And in no time the year is 1910. Nathan is a lowly proofreader for the Jewish Daily Forward, and he's smitten with a youthful Keni. Nathan's also a storyteller, and the story he tells to seduce an unwilling Keni concerns an earthbound angel named Mocky and his half-mortal son named Nachman. They also live on the Lower East Side, but it's the turn of the century and they're in the company of a band of Yiddish-speaking cutthroats and thieves. A chapter later, though, and we're in Memphis -- Midtown, to be exact. It's 1970. Saul has dropped out of college, and after a short stay in a mental institution, he falls in with a bunch of unwashed dopeheads. Billy Boots is head of the house -- on Idlewild, to be exact -- until that house goes up in smoke and Billy directs the hippie household to the Arkansas Ozarks, where they start a farm and where ... where ...
Forget it. Even a thumbnail description of the twisting, time-traveling, high-comedy narratives that make up The Angel of Forgetfulness won't fit this space. So let Steve Stern do the talking, as he did in a recent phone interview from his office at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York, where he teaches creative writing.
The Flyer: I'm interrupting you at work.
Steve Stern: Yes you are. I thank you. Keep talking.
Speaking of work, you once taught at the University of Memphis.
That was a few years ago. There was a creative-writing chair in the English department. I asked for a settee. They offered me a footstool. So we compromised.
This latest novel has in it the most, if not the first, autobiographical material you've written. Care to comment?
Years ago, I wrote a story about an angel named Mocky and his son. But it never touched the ground. I mean, it took place in such a fabulist dimension. I stuck the story in a drawer, where it will remain in perpetuity. Then Mocky sort of gave "birth" to Nathan, who writes about Mocky and his son in The Angel of Forgetfulness. But it seemed to me that the story needed an additional "frame": me.
I'm not an autobiographical writer. God forbid. But I did feel a perverse impulse to stick myself in the book and try to define my own relationship to the world of this novel. I started writing a little close to home. In fact, there are friends of mine in Memphis who are implicated.
I heard as much from a woman I work with.
Don't give her the book! Just give her my regards. And my apologies as well.
You took liberties with the scenes set in Midtown and that commune in Arkansas?
Gross liberties! My borrowing from experiences that happened over 30 years ago ... It's all filtered through a pretty distorted lens. The characters are hybrids and largely invented.
Even your character Saul, who seems to be an awful lot like you?
Oh ... I don't know. I don't think I'm as bad as Saul. I think I've got a little more integrity than him. He's a pathetic fuck. I don't like him very much. But he learns a bit, grows a bit.
Your prose style is seamless. Have you ever felt like you were, excuse the term, "channeling" these characters?
That's true! The angel dictated most of it! That's my problem. I was just the receptacle.
But seriously, I'm a slow writer. For the last five years or so, the writing was pretty choppy. I was doing more traveling than I'm used to, more teaching. So the writing itself was in fits and starts. But one story sort of begat another. They fell oddly into place. There wasn't a lot of tinkering. It was a natural process.
Jewish immigrants and Yiddish-American literature have had a profound effect on you and your work. What drew you to that literature in the first place?
I've been reading this stuff for years, because that immigrant chapter is my favorite chapter in American history. I love the notion of people from a thousand-year exile translating the diaspora experience to America -- to a few square blocks on the Lower East Side of Manhattan -- and bringing with them all the baggage of tradition, most of which was defined by oppression, persecution, and poverty. The Lower East Side was in many ways yet another ghetto, another kind of poverty and confinement. But it was also a place where creative energies were released in explosive ways. The air was palpable with those energies.
Did your parents or your teachers encourage you as a writer?
No, not at all. Not to malign my mother and father, but growing up, there were no books, no music, no art in the house. My father was a grocer. We had a few Reader's Digest condensed books, but that was it. And East High in the '60s ... It was not a place that reinforced literary pursuits. I wanted to be an athlete! A pretty forlorn fantasy.
After college I had these wander-years. My friends and I, you know, took too many drugs, found ourselves on a dirt farm in the Arkansas Ozarks. Then I knocked around Europe some, mostly England, and ended up ... Where did I end up? I didn't end up anywhere! I came back to Memphis in my 30s. Got married. We split up in '86. That's when I left Memphis pretty much for good.
I went to Wisconsin to teach and then to Saratoga Springs, which has been home going on 19 years. I arrived as a visiting lecturer at Skidmore, and when that ended, I just hung around. After a couple of years, they were embarrassed to see me on the streets all the time.
Have you been at all influenced by Southern literature?
Early on, I had writer friends in Memphis who were working out of that tradition, which I wanted to lay claim to as well but always felt somewhat estranged from. And as much as I admire Faulkner and Welty and O'Connor -- you know, "the gang" -- it wasn't my literature finally. I grew up, on the one hand, feeling that Memphis was home, and, on the other hand, reserving the right to feel like an outsider.
But that Lower East Side diaspora mentality ... I still have a kind of "poacher's" attitude toward Jewish tradition and culture and all this material I'm passionate about but at the same time always apologizing for exploiting. Because it's not something I experienced first-hand. I've come to it through the back door, mostly through texts.
Who else is working out of this tradition today?
It's funny. When I started writing about the Pinch, that old Jewish neighborhood in Memphis -- spinning stories out of folkloric motifs and using elements borrowed from Jewish tales, the Talmud, kabbalah, and midrash -- I did feel like I was alone. But there's a generation that's younger than me and feels comfortable with these materials, writers like Nathan Englander and Jonathan Safran Foer.
I take it you don't much care to hear your work described as "magic realism."
It gets slotted that way sometimes, but I've never been comfortable with the label. To that extent, the Old Testament is magic realism! My work is the natural marriage of ordinary experience and fable. It's a tradition that Yiddish literature has been mining or did mine for decades ... a literature born out of an oral tradition.
The "accessories" -- the concrete details of that literature -- are all very real, very much drawn from the grit, the ordinary life of the Pale and the shtetl but always with an affinity for the universal, which is that folkloric dimension, that fabulist dimension.
Are there major plans to publicize The Angel of Forgetfulness?
I know that there are NO major plans. My editor is doing his best to make an "event" out of the book, but it's a catch-22: If you're a writer with a track record like mine, publishers don't spend a penny unless you already have the kind of attention that warrants an expense on their part. But I did talk Viking into paying for my flight to Memphis in late April for a booksigning at Burke's. So far, that's it.
I've always been better at discouraging people from reading my books than promoting them.
Do you hear from the readers you do have?
Oh, just my friends, who generally say nice things. But I don't trust them. It would be nice to hear from readers, but, you know, my books have been sort of few and far between, and they tend to be greeted, each one, as the first. Nobody seems to remember I've had books before.
That explains why you don't have a higher profile in your own hometown?
I don't know. Maybe it's because I'm a despicable, black-hearted individual. I had my moment of local celebrity back in the '80s. You leave town, and people forget.
Maybe I can help them not to forget.
Do your worst.