I was conceived when my brother Doodya, who was also my father, sat in the privy behind the family’s hovel in Vidderpol playing with his schwantz. This is what they told me, and the Jews loved telling me at every least opportunity. My mother, fat and blind, eyeballs like soft-boiled eggs, had lumbered into the outhouse to move her bowels. She hosted the skirts of her tent-sized shift to squat over the hole, where she felt herself impaled on an alien organ as it spurted its load. When she shrieked, Doodya opened his eyes and, bellowing like a gelded calf himself, shoved my mother onto the outhouse floor. Then pulling up his moleskins, he trounced through the muddy yard scattering fowl, gathered his patched caftan and phylacteries from a hook, and vanished from the earth as surely as the Ten Lost Tribes.
And then his life really goes downhill.
I tried with this one. I tend to enjoy Jewish stories, and Steve Stern writes almost exclusively from Yiddish folk tales, so I was looking forward to it. But this, this was agonizing. I’m not even sure it was supposed to be funny. I was so miserable reading it, I couldn’t tell. I kept waiting for it to turn the corner. Not into a happy ending – into something, anything that made it worth slogging through page after page of misery. Was I supposed to be laughing at this guy’s misfortunes?
Such as his harelip, cleft palate, and other deformities? His annoyingly cheerful buddy Angel? His kidnapping into the Army? His castration following his only sexual encounter? His seeming return to try again? Is there a message here I’m supposed to get?
I kept thinking, this is the Jewish version of Jim Shepard. But I didn’t enjoy this story at all. In fact, it annoyed me, which is unusual. It does have a very strong voice, with a kind of sneery whimper of derision to it; that might add to that.
I’m positive there’s some larger picture I’m completely missing. It’s a parable about the Jewish experience, or about Life, or about The Human Condition, or The King of the Schlemazels, or some such thing. Or it’s a perfect example of some form: the Yiddish folk tale, the Hero Myth, the Job parable. Or maybe it’s an homage to someone, like Saul Bellow or Philip Roth, both of whom are among Stern’s inspirations.
I can glimpse a few hints – he thinks the afterlife can’t be worse, yet it is. The scenes he sees through the scrim are of him; the desire he has to impart hope to the struggling actor, to empower him to change his life, is made manifest as he is returned to his life at a point at which he can still effect change. Really? That’s it? All this misery, for that?
I freely admit my ignorance, and my complete lack of whatever aesthetic sensibility (dark humor? irony?) is required here. I’m glad it’s a great story, and if someone wants to explain why, I’ll be delighted to listen. Just don’t make me read it, ever, again, please.