B ack in 1968, Lenny Sklarew was 21 and working in a dusty, rarely visited secondhand bookstore called the Book Asylum on North Main Street, Memphis. The neighborhood, known as the Pinch, had started out Irish, but beginning in the late nineteenth century it was home to many of the city’s newly arrived Russian Jews. Those were the days of hard-working, tight-knit families who held firm to their faith and their traditional ways. By the late ’60s, however, the Pinch had fallen on hard times — empty buildings, vacant lots, deserted streets, but for bohemians, there was a bar called 348, which is where Lenny did some side work selling drugs (when he wasn’t hanging out with a Midtown rock band called Velveeta and the Psychopimps). Lenny, however, had a manuscript on his hands. Could there be money in that too?The book was a history of the Pinch written decades earlier by a man named Muni Pinsker. Or was Muni’s book a novel? Either way you looked at, Lenny (who was mysteriously featured in the book as well) was hoping to get it published. So he sought the opinion of the celebrated Memphis writer and pipe-smoking Southern gentleman known for his multivolume history of the Civil War. Surely that man of letters could get the attention of possible agents and publishers. Lenny gave him a copy of the manuscript, titled The Pinch: A History; a Novel , and waited for a reply. He got one, and it’s worth quoting in full: “I’m afraid this reader’s tastes tend too much toward the traditional to allow for a plenary appreciation of the liberties Mr. Pinsker has taken with narrative convention. Nor am I a fan of violating common reality with such liberal incursions of the preposterous; whatever claims the book makes to historical authenticity are patently absurd. However, I am not entirely unaware of certain trends in contemporary culture, and I suspect there are camps in which Mr. Pinsker’s brand of whimsy might be indulged. I suppose there are even those who might take some pleasure in the calculated ingenuousness of the author’s voice, despite its clannish ethnicity. That said, I found the inclusion in the text of a character I assume is yourself to be a needless contrivance: it’s a gimmick clearly designed to give the work a ‘metafictional’ stamp and seems a deliberate pandering to the fashion of the day. Still, though I judge the book to be finally a curio without enduring literary merit, it would be ungenerous not to concede that it nevertheless deserves its moment in the court of popular opinion, and I have forwarded The Pinch to my agent with that endorsement.”
The endorsement worked. The Pinch was published. Some reviewers praised its “kaleidoscopic nature.” Others thought it the product of a “puerile sensibility.” Some complained of its “tribal” content. In the court of public opinion, however, good word of mouth grew. The Pinch achieved minor cult status. Lenny Sklarew was finally making not a lot but some money.
Except he really wasn’t. The above success story was actually a morphine-induced dream.
Stern has been teaching at Skidmore College for years, but his imagination has never strayed far from his hometown, the Pinch, and its fictional denizens.
Lenny was in the hospital recovering from the beating he took from Memphis police during the melee that erupted between demonstrators and officers during the march led by Martin Luther King Jr. in support of the city’s striking sanitation workers. What’s more, Lenny’s leg was broken, but it wasn’t on account of the beating. It was the fault of an ambulance, whose doors accidentally opened on the way to the hospital. The stretcher, with Lenny strapped to it, flew out, which explains what the stretcher was doing heading west on Madison Avenue — and into eastbound traffic.
What is the real fate of The Pinch: A History; a Novel by Muni Pinsker? That’s for readers of The Pinch: A History; a Novel (Graywolf Press), the latest by native Memphian Steve Stern, to discover. And yes, you have every right to be already thoroughly confused. But some of what that Civil War historian said of Lenny’s manuscript might be said of Stern’s novel too — as Stern himself is abundantly well aware. “Liberal incursions of the preposterous”? “Clannish ethnicity”? Okay, but seen in those terms, that would go for Stern’s entire body of wildly imaginative work, work that earned him the National Jewish Book Award in 2000, the praise of Susan Sontag and Cynthia Ozick, and the attention of The New York Times , which once described Stern as a “literary darling looking for dear readers.”
Stern has been teaching at Skidmore College for years, but his imagination has never strayed far from his hometown, the Pinch, and its fictional denizens. In The Pinch , the major characters include, in addition to Lenny (an East Memphis boy) and Muni (a refugee from Siberia):
Pinchas Pinsker, “pioneer Ashkenaz” in Memphis, survivor of the yellow fever epidemic of 1878, and owner of Pin’s General Merchandise; Pinchas’ formidable Irish wife, Katie; the couple’s son, Tyrone, liberator at the gates of Dachau, longtime resident of the West Tennessee insane asylum in Bolivar, and the artist responsible for illustrating Muni’s manuscript; Jenny Bashrig, Muni’s girlfriend and a tightrope walker who later joins a riverboat circus; Rachel Ostrofsky, a Brandeis grad who’s researching the history of the Pinch and wounding, repeatedly, the heart of Lenny Sklarew; Rabbi Eliakum ben Yahya and his band of Hasidic zealots (who are awaiting the apocalypse, with Memphis calculated to be at the dead center of it); Avrom Slutsky, concentration camp survivor and owner of the Book Asylum (formerly Pin’s General Merchandise); and a blind, African-American fiddler named Asbestos.
Among the additional, minor characters … well, they number in the dozens, chief among them Rose and Morris Padauer, who, in a hypnotic state and after enjoying a floor show performed by the New Pygmy Minstrels, conceive a child on the roof of The Peabody, and Hershel Tarnopol, a chronic shoplifter, who gets swallowed, Jonah-like, by a giant fish on the first evening of Rosh Hashanah, the Days of Awe, the fish materializing out of the muddy Catfish Bayou, just north of the Pinch.
“It’s this stupid street that’s drove you nuts,” Jenny at one point tells Muni, who is driven half-crazy to finish his history, The Pinch , “a mishmash of stories that needed only some designated scribe to apprehend and record them for all time.”
And speaking of time — in The Pinch it’s elastic. It contracts. It stretches to infinity. Things happen chronologically. Or are they happening simultaneously? The oak tree in Market Square? Even nature can be uprooted, overturned. North Main Street itself? It can turn into a waterway. And sometimes, heaven and earth can meet midway.
Which brings us to the Pinch today, in real life. And there you have it: not the fictional catfish breaking the surface of Catfish Bayou, but another giant. You know the one. It’s a big bass several stories above the city. It’s on steel pyramid that overlooks a neighborhood, the one (in the words of Muni Pinsker) “that they called the Pinch,” the ghost neighborhood described by its designated scribe, Steve Stern, in The Pinch: A History; a Novel , which is indeed a kaleidoscopic curio but one with great literary merit.