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'The Frozen Rabbi,' Steve Stern's fantastical comic novel

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By Jess Walter
Tuesday, June 22, 2010

THE FROZEN RABBI

By Steve Stern

Algonquin. 370 pp. $24.95

Among the wonders awaiting the reader of Steve Stern's exuberant new novel, "The Frozen Rabbi," is one of sheer logistics: How did he get all of this in here?

The book's 370 pages are packed to bursting with epic adventure and hysterical comedy, with grim poignancy and pointed satire, as Stern repeatedly shifts time and tone to craft a wildly entertaining tale of the 20th-century Jewish experience and the paradox of tradition.

The author of seven works of adult fiction and two children's books based on Jewish folklore, Stern grounds his fantastical tale within the perfectly recognizable: "Sometime during his restless fifteenth year, Bernie Karp discovered in his parents' food freezer -- a white-enameled Kelvinator humming in its corner of the basement rumpus room -- an old man frozen in a block of ice." It seems that while meditating near a pond in Poland in 1889, the mystic Rabbi Eliezer ben Zephyr was flooded, frozen, cut into a block of ice and eventually left in the care of Bernie's great-great-grandfather Salo King (or Salo Frostbite, as he's soon called).

This origin story of the Frostbissen/Karp clan and their rabbi-cicle provides one of the novel's two parallel tracks. Bernie's predecessors must negotiate savage pogroms and wrenching poverty in Eastern Europe, gangster-infested streets in old New York, even a short side trip to pre-Israel Palestine. This is all to explain how a family comes to have a rabbi inside its rumpus-room freezer in Memphis in 1999. The family's adventure provides enough chases, fistfights, love stories, rescues, escapes and human tragedies to plot five novels.

The other rail of the story concerns the acidly comic exploits of the old man once he's thawed, entirely unharmed, into a world of Oprah, "Reb (Jerry) Springer," the "orgies of MTV" and a synagogue so progressive, the joke goes, that "it closed its doors on Jewish holidays." The rabbi goes out into this America to restore the souls of people who "eat till their bellies swell by them like Goliath his hernia, and shop till their houses bulge from the electronic Nike and the Frederick of Hollywood balconette brassiere, but they ain't satisfied." Meanwhile, since defrosting the old man, Bernie has become strangely attuned to the mystical powers of faith and is experiencing out-of-body religious reveries for which he turns to the rabbi for explanation.

As a metaphor for the modern incongruity of ancient religious tradition, a frozen rabbi could be embarrassingly heavy-handed, but an actual frozen rabbi? That's just funny. Page after page, Stern embraces every outrageous possibility, in lush, cartwheeling sentences that layer deep mystery atop page-turning action atop Borscht Belt humor. So while Bernie seeks wisdom, the rabbi goes in for all our modern culture has to offer, turning for salvation to Viagra, Botox injections and the Tantric Kabbalah group at his wildly successful New House of Enlightenment, where "I don't like to embarrass with too much Jewish stuff the goyim."

The rabbi has concluded that America's ease and opulence make it a kind of heaven on earth: "Paradise is where already you are," he announces. When Bernie assures him that this is definitely not heaven, the rabbi shrugs and says, "Is as good as" and goes back to pinching the bottoms of his growing retinue of female followers.

Of course, not everything Stern throws into the book (and he throws in a lot) works equally well. A few jokes are groaners, and a section from Bernie's grandfather's journal -- translated from Yiddish as Bernie reads aloud to his quirky girlfriend -- loses narrative steam and is eventually abandoned.

But this is like complaining about an extra mushroom on your kitchen-sink pizza. In all, it's a fine performance: Stories are told, points made, conventions flayed, and the reader comes to care about what will happen to poor Bernie, earnestly seeking transcendence from a fallen prophet. Of course, as the Frozen Rabbi assures him, he shouldn't worry; all the answers are in his book, " 'The Ice Sage,' adventures of Rabbi Eliezer ben Zephyr and God . . . which it's twenty-nine ninety-five retail."

Walter won the 2005 Edgar Allan Poe Award for best novel and was a finalist in 2006 for the National Book Award. He is the author of six books, most recently "The Financial Lives of the Poets."


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