THE WEDDING JESTER

By Steve Stern

Graywolf. 223 pp. Paperback, $14

Reviewed by Sanford Pinsker

By all the rules of literary logic, Steve Stern's psychic excavations of old-time Memphis ought not to exist. But exist they do -- and in ways that his growing number of readers recognize like a thumbprint. Why so? Because Stern gives magical realism new possibilities, ones that, by crafty increments and sentences to die for, transform the ordinary into the miraculous.

Author of two novels, three collections of short stories, a collection of novellas, and two children's books, Stern strikes me as operating at his best within the canvas of a short story. In roughly the same way that figures in a Chagall painting float over shtetl rooftops, Stern's characters suggest a poignant immediacy that depends, in part, on brevity. The result is stories in which virtually anything can happen -- and usually does.

Stern cut his imaginative teeth as a folklorist (in 1983, he served as director of the Center for Southern Folklore's Ethnic Heritage Program), and the oral histories he transcribed as part of his work began to reassemble themselves in his mind. And thus it was that "the Pinch" (the Jewish quarter of Memphis), in Stern's words, "rose up like the Lost Continent of Atlantis for me and began to look like a home for my stories." The result is at once a haunting memory and an intimation of the entirely new -- for Stern so blends the surface detail of what was with infusions of the fantastic that it is often difficult to know where accuracy ends and magical realism begins. As one character puts it, "It's like . . . being awake in your dreams."

The Wedding Jester brings nine of Stern's most accomplished stories between paperback covers. Four are set in the Pinch, with the others divided among the Old Country, Manhattan and the Catskills. In the collection's title story, Saul Bozoff, a 53-year-old writer who had acquired a modest reputation -- and an academic job -- for a collection of stories about "the Pinch," accompanies his mother to a wedding at a decrepit Catskill hotel. On the face of it, this looks like a literary equivalent of been-there, done-that; but Stern has some very funny Yiddish ghosts up his sleeve. If Bozoff "populated his tales with every species of folklore, every manner of fanciful event," only to discover, painfully, that the spell that made his fiction possible had been broken, the same thing cannot be said of Stern -- however many biographical echoes resonate between them. Indeed, one only need offer up "The Wedding Jester," the side-splitting tale of a bride invaded by the dybbuk (restless ghost) of a long-dead Catskill comedian, as Exhibit A. In another story, "Bruno's Metamorphosis," yet another Stern character suffers through the pangs of writer's block. The happy news of Stern's latest collection is that he, thank heaven, continues to write, and at the top of his form in the bargain.

With the notable exception of "A String Around the Moon: A Children's Story," most of the shorter short stories pall when compared with longer, more complicated ones such as "Romance" or "Yiddish Twilight." And in the case of "The Sin of Elijah," a tale of voyeurism and marital passion, Stern may well have penned the sexiest Jewish tale since "The Song of Songs."

There are many reasons to savor Stern's stories -- they remind us of worlds and folkloric traditions long faded from memory, as well as of the imagination's wilder side -- but perhaps the most telling of all is the sheer pleasure they provide. All this will seem obvious to those who have read earlier collections, but for those who have not, it is time they learn for themselves just how many characters can be crowded into a most unlikely Jewish ghetto. My favorites -- and I am hardly alone -- are "Lazar Malkin Enters Heaven" (from Stern's prize-winning 1987 collection of the same name) and "The Tale of a Kite," probably his most anthologized story. That "The Wedding Jester" begins with a mystical rabbi tethered to the earth (like a kite) and ends with a tale of how the moon is held captive in a room by way of a string is surely no accident -- just as Stern's crystal-clear prose teases us out of thought and resonates long after the last (invariably poetic) paragraphs seem over.

Sanford Pinsker teaches at Franklin and Marshall College.