THE ANGEL OF FORGETFULNESS
By Steve Stern
Viking. 404 pp. $24.95
Steve Stern isn't as well known as he should be, but he belongs in the same company as Stanley Elkin and Cynthia Ozick, Michael Chabon and Mark Helprin, Melvin Jules Bukiet and Philip Roth. All of these might be thought of, very loosely, as innovative and restless practitioners of contemporary American-Jewish fantasy. They draw on Jewish tradition and folklore, the legacy of Sholom Aleichem, Kafka and Isaac Bashevis Singer, the verbal razzmatazz of Yiddish. Not all the time, of course. But their artistry embraces not merely the prosaic world outside the window but also angels and demons, the Golem, the Messiah and the succubus Lilith, as well as the arcana of the Kabbalah and many of the legends of the Jews.
Touching, funny and dizzying as well as delicate in its virtuosity, The Angel of Forgetfulness interweaves a clutch of narratives that, we gradually come to realize, are fugal variations on the same story. The angel Mocky, the writer-journalist Nathan Hart, the actor and playwright Nachman Opgekumener, and the shy, depressed hippie dropout Saul Bozoff all find themselves torn between the tugs of the sacred and the profane. Back in 17th-century Russia, the angel falls in love with a woman and takes on human form for her sake, but eventually feels himself drawn back to the celestial paradise he abandoned. In 1910 New York, Nathan Hart writes down Mocky's story -- which he is either creating or somehow channeling -- and uses it to seduce a young shopgirl. Within his narrative he includes the New York adventures of Mocky's son, Nachman Opgekumener ("the one who came down"), infatuated with an actress known as Sophie the Red. Finally, in 1969 a very old woman gives the tattered manuscript of Hart's "The Angel of Forgetfulness" to the Columbia student Saul Bozoff, who simply hides it inside a hollow tree. Nonetheless, Bozoff's ups and downs over the next 20 years will chime with the gradually unfolding melody of yearning, loss and achievement. In every case, the text of "The Angel of Forgetfulness" infects these men with impossible desires that make them unfit for ordinary life and love.
Even while creating the novel's interlaced structure, these multiple strands also allow Stern to show off his command of several registers of English and his marvelous talent for evoking two different eras. Nathan belongs to the world of the Jewish Daily Forward and Yiddish theater, pals around with gangsters sporting Runyonesque names like Big Jack Zelig, Lighthouse Freddy and Gyp the Blood, spends time at Ethical Culture lectures and in saloons and charity hospitals. Nathan even starts his career on the Lower East Side as a schlepper, "lugging piecework from the garment factories west of Broadway to the downtown sweatshops." Ah, America!
"His route might take him through the Hester Street market, where men in gory aprons sank their cleavers into meat seething with blue fly larvae. Rail-thin women fingered the entrails of hanging fowl to determine their kosherness, haggled with merchants who alternated between deference and poisonous invective. There were streets like Allen, known as the 'street of perpetual shadow,' lousy with pickpockets and strutting pimps. The whores, naked under their flower kimonos, spit out the husks of sunflower seeds as they beckoned from beneath the tracks of the Second Avenue El. Surviving one gauntlet, Nathan would be plunged into yet another, his progress often stalled behind the funeral cortege of some infant victim of cholera, its casket no larger than a bread box. He dodged the live cats the hoodlums dropped from rooftops, dodged the hoodlums who ran past with the bundles they'd snatched from evicted families shipwrecked on their stoops."
This might be a street scene by artists John Sloan or Reginald Marsh. When Nathan first glimpses his beloved Keni, she is seated in a theater "munching fried chickpeas from a paper twist" and watching an operetta called "Rabbi Akiva and His Twenty-Four Thousand Disciples."
Nathan is nothing if not serious about life. By contrast, Saul describes his adventures in the 1960s and '70s with wry, angst-filled humor. "A homely kid with a wayward imagination, I'd managed to parlay my bare bones and pockmarked face into a self-image of authentic grotesquery. I was convinced that no woman of valor and substance could ever want me, and therein lay the source of the sorrowful nature that had wounded me into writing poems." His mother, Saul tells us, "was a veteran hysteric who'd spent the duration of my troubled adolescence facedown on her bed weeping disconsolately." Naturally, he feels estranged from his family, "preferring to think, despite the unfortunate physical resemblance, that I was a changeling left in place of my parents' real child, who'd been stolen by trolls."
In this last phrase, with its joke that Saul may not be wholly human, we glimpse some of Stern's subtlety. His heroes -- to use a phrase of Saul's -- are all alienated from their true selves. While working as a two-bit gangster, Mocky hides his wings and acts like a drunken roughneck; his son, Nachman, is a hybrid of angel and man; another important character will mull over Kafka's parable about "the man who's a citizen of both heaven and earth, but the chain that fastens him to earth makes heaven inaccessible and ditto the chain that attaches him to heaven."
Like so much Jewish-American writing, Stern's prose -- his earlier books include the short story collections Lazar Malkin Enters Heaven and The Wedding Jester -- neatly blends gallows humor, naturalistic detail, the twang and syntax of Yiddish and learned reference. For instance, there's an "Ozymandias Realty" and a "Fidelio's Bail Bonds" -- both of which bring a smile when one recalls the themes of Shelley's poem and Beethoven's opera. Saul himself is always surrounded by the mad and the lonely. Consider a sampling of the society he mingles with at the mental hospital:
These included "a fat lady in a sequined housecoat who fancied herself a species of walking fish and always carried a carafe of water as a symbol of the medium that sustained her; a hairless ex-priest who'd lost his faith and literally girded his loins in a breechclout of institutional bath towels, flaying himself with electrical cords until orderlies confiscated them; a middle-aged lady of pleasant features and sapphire hair who laid claim to the sovereignty of the planet Toximania, where a pretender sat on the throne, and wore at all times the mantle of her sensible tweed cloak; a flinty-faced old gentleman with knobkerrie legs, who stood rigid as a sentry for days, only to fling himself without warning onto some unwitting female patient who'd ventured within range."
Later, at Memphis and Arkansas communes, Saul encounters Vietnam vets, suicidal Blakean visionaries, drug traffickers and various sexpots like the underage schoolgirl Becky Le Bon Bon, "Suzy Q, our honey-blond dreamsicle of a teenage runaway" (who celebrates her 18th birthday by having sex with nearly all the men on the farm), and the barmaid Regina, so voluptuous she might be "practically decanting herself from her milkmaid's corset." Even when he travels to Prague (the haunted city of so much Jewish fantasy), Saul meets the extraordinary madman (or con artist) Svatopluk Lishkin, who gives him a bargain-rate tour:
"The streets of Prague, as you may know, correspond to configurations of human brain. Think brain of Franze Kafky, eighteen and eighty-two to nineteen and twenty-four, Czech author of Jewish extraction whose works are proscribed for decadent modernism in current political climate. To negotiate thoroughfares of Prague is, in manner of speaking, to explore brain of Franz Kafka . . . ."
Eventually, the pair ascend to a mysterious attic where they discover the dust of the Golem, which turns out to possess hallucinogenic properties. There too Saul learns about the transmigration of souls -- and the plot of The Angel of Forgetfulness starts to make more and more sense. "If the story sounds familiar," says Mocky at one point, "it's because I've been sentenced to repeat it until Nachman's soul comes home again."
At its simplest, The Angel of Forgetfulness is a Bildungsroman -- a novel about the discovery of a vocation. Both Nathan and Saul, for instance, achieve a kind of happiness, but they injure themselves and others in doing so, including the women who love them. From beginning to end, Steve Stern's impressive novel hovers, effortlessly and perfectly balanced, between laughter and tears, earth and heaven.
Michael Dirda's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org. His weekly discussion of books takes place each Wednesday at 2 p.m. on washingtonpost.com.