My review of Steve Stern’s The Pinch: A Novel/A History ran today in the Boston Globe.
I’ve written before about how frustrating I find framing stories (that is, when the main story of a novel is introduced via a separate, ostensibly related story that sets it up). I think it’s a hard thing to pull off well. And in the last few books I’ve read that have utilized this device, it’s been more of an irritation than anything else.
The Pinch is a great example. It’s the story of Muni Pinsker, a Russian refugee who makes his home in the Pinch district of Memphis, Tennessee in 1911. And it’s a great story! Stern manages to create a narrative full of surreal, fantastical happenings and Yiddish folklore that is also sweet, funny, deeply affecting, and emotional. It’s smart and engrossing, and I was excited to see where it was headed and read along with Stern’s rich, lyrical prose. He’s a great prose stylist.
But rather than simply tell us the story of Muni Pinsker, Stern was compelled to couch that narrative in another one. It’s Lenny Sklarew that finds Muni’s memoir in a bookstore in 1968. And to get to Muni, we have to go through Lenny. And Lenny is awful. His story is banal, and he’s a boor. When writing for Lenny, Stern’s prose becomes leaden, and the momentum of the story grinds to a halt. The book alternates between Muni chapters and Lenny chapters, and I can’t stress enough how hard it was to push through the latter. Thankfully, Muni was worth it, but what a slog.
Of course, Stern wraps up Lenny’s story with a bunch of metafictional flim-flam, including two separate endings. Yes, Lenny gets two endings, to Muni’s one! Yet, I suspect that I could’ve skipped every bit of Lenny and not missed out on anything of importance.
But I can still recommend The Pinch. And I do recommend it. At least half of it.