In praising one of Steve Stern's earlier novels, one Web commentator said the author is "still not well known, maybe could be labelled unknown." This idea - that maybe he is unknown - seems a perfectly Steve Stern way of looking at things: Kabalistic mystery hops in beside the bleakness of Ecclesiastes, and Rodney Dangerfield rides shotgun.
But the truth is that Stern is actually quite famous for being unknown. In the 25 years since he published his first book ( Isaac and the Undertaker's Daughter), younger Jewish writers have run with a similar shtick, and have, for some reason, reaped bigger returns. In Jonathan Safran Foer, you see Stern's fanciful English, in Nicole Krauss his magic realism, in Michael Chabon his updated golems and gun-toting shtarkers. But Stern was there first, and with The Frozen Rabbi it feels like he may be last too: This is a novel so rich, full, funny, dense and exhausting, it feels like there may be no more Steve Stern books left to write - by him, or anyone else.
One afternoon in 1999, 15-year-old Bernie Karp finds a perfectly preserved shtetl rabbi encased in the ice of his family's freezer. His father explains: "Some people got taxidermied pets in the attic, we got a frozen rabbi in the basement. It's a family tradition." He goes on to say that the "saintsicle" met his unfortunate fate a century ago, after tipping into a lake while in a mystical trance. After his initial adoption by Bernie's great-great-grandfather back in the Pale of Settlement, the rabbi has been passed down through successive generations, an unwieldy heirloom trundled around the world as if he were a pair of sabbath candlesticks.
"He brings luck," is the reason everyone gives. Unfortunately, it's the wrong kind. The Karp family's afflictions are legion, all of them detailed here. First, there is the tale of Salo Frostbissen, who dies rescuing his daughter from vicious assailants. That daughter is the ingenious but afflicted Jocheved, who disguises herself as a man and hauls the rabbi across the ocean to Ellis Island. In New York City, he is then passed to son, Ruben, who eventually becomes a haunted, angry Irgun militant and settles on a kibbutz before the birth of Israel in the 1940s. The final owner is Ruben's son, Julius, a dull home-appliance salesman in fin de siècle Memphis.
During a power outage, the rabbi melts and is resurrected before the wondering eyes of Julius's son Bernie, a chubby loner hungry for spiritual guidance. None, however, is forthcoming; wet and spindly as a newborn foal, Rabbi Eliezer ben Zephyr soon comes roaring to life, and, in a storyline reminiscent of Woody Allen's Kugelmass Episode (Stern has his forebears too), goes from the pastoral sublime to the urban craptaculous. He throws himself into the world of strip malls, fast women and televangelism with increasing fervour, even as Bernie takes it upon himself to become an ascetic scholar, the just and learned sage he believes his "family pet" should be.
There is a vast amount of material here, and not all of it is handled perfectly. If the Bernie/rabbi bits ultimately leave one cold, it's probably because all the amerikitsch feels too much like old home week for anyone who has basic cable, or remembers what Heidi Montag's thighs looked like before her 16th liposuction. But boy, are there moments here: The rabbi's first observations about television, while he still cleaves to the old ways, are pretty hilarious; "If a man to other men will sell his wife," he asks, "is not obliged Reb Springer to cleave open his breast and tear out his farkokte heart?"
Far better - brilliant, in fact - is everything else about this book. In particular, the coming together of Bernie's great-grandparents is as touching a love story as any I have ever read. The colours of their Lower East Side neighbourhood are also vivid and sharp: the live chickens and dead con men, the sweatshops and stables and crowded tenements. And Stern is just as painterly elsewhere, whether he writes about Palestine or the Pale.
It's perhaps unusual that a comic writer should also be such an astute historian, but Steve Stern - for all his doppelgangers in the literary world - is truly one of a kind. If good fortune favours him more than it does the Karps, this may finally be the book that marks him as a known commodity. Then again, there is something so achingly sad and funny about the non-fame he already has, and the lovely writing that has given rise to it. Why mess with a good thing?
Cynthia Macdonald is a Toronto journalist and fiction writer. Her freezer contains nothing more interesting than fish sticks.
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