Richard Stern is known for not being better known. A native New Yorker (born 1928) and for many years a University of Chicago professor, an intimate of Bellow and Roth, Stern has written unclassifiable novels marked by nimble wit, immense intelligence, and (to cop a Stern title) depths of feeling. Almonds to Zhoof, his massive new story collection, approaches maximum density: A page in the novella “Veni, Vidi . . . Wendt” was so rich with pleasures that this reader felt like tearing it out and eating it.
As heady as Almonds is—the perfect similes (“My room in the Hôtel Saint Louis was so small it felt like an overcoat”), the wanderlust and just plain lust—it’s probably not the Stern to start with. Its facets shine best after a tour of his major novels (recently reissued by TriQuarterly): Stitch (1965), Other Men’s Daughters (1973), and Natural Shocks (1978). Though the protagonists are of different occupations and temperaments, and the loci—Venice, Cambridge/Boston, New York—distinctly evoked, these books form a triptych in which men of mind suddenly find themselves with all the makings of failure. Stern’s magic is in making these anything but journeys of despair.
Natural Shocks‘ first sentence should hook even the most casual browser: “Three years after Frederick Wursup moved across Lexington Avenue and turned his office into his home as well, he discovered he could see the old apartment—where his ex-wife, Susannah, still lived with their two sons—from the roof.” Wursup, celebrated journalist and author of a popular book (Down the American Drain), is a decent man whose job nevertheless requires converting “intimacies . . . into publicity, benevolently but beyond recall.” His book in progress is a meditation on death, a project taken out of the abstract once he meets Cicia Buell, a terminal patient at St. Vincent’s.
Natural Shocks is as entertaining as it is wrenching. Stern doesn’t hesitate to throw real people in the mix: Wursup has interviewed Nixon and recalls meeting Yukio Mishima. His seismologist girlfriend, Sookie, is another one of Stern’s indelibly conjured women. Line for line, it has the author’s best writing, little arias left and right. The one-sentence, paragraph-long, street-level catalog of a walker’s New York is so good you’ll find yourself e-mailing it to people, and a description of an apartment in Rome (“frilled with the artwork and artifacts of two millennia: clay pepper pots from the first century, tropic-colored squashes from the day before yesterday”) casually announces the book’s world-cramming, time-crunching ambition. The idiosyncratic structure interrupts the main narrative line with sections devoted to previously tertiary characters; the eventual linkages and collisions are the title’s natural shocks. It’s a strange but organic flow, and one thinks of the etymology of Cicia’s surname, from its original Italian, Abbuglio: “It means ‘mistake’ or ‘dazzle.’ ”
Other Men’s Daughters would seem like a less louche Lolita: Married Robert Merriwether, blue-blood father of four, Harvard dipsologist (he studies “thirst”), falls for Southern-born coed Cynthia Ryder. Nabokov could off Charlotte Haze and get on with the word-drunk mirrorplay. Stern grounds his lovers’ fantasy in all-too-real nightmare, from the numb reactions of Merriwether’s children to the “large machine” devised to handle divorce proceedings. “Over and over, the same situations, the same warnings, the same conclusions,” Merriwether muses, but Stern makes his story urgent and surprising by the quality of the empathy and the sharpness of the prose.
Stitch is the most challenging novel of the three, a floating world in which a man at loose ends (married American Edward Gunther) has a messy affair with a go-for-broke poet and encounters the titular aging genius (a portrait based on Pound, whom Stern met). Less likable than Wursup or Merriwether, Edward is nevertheless allowed to stumble, disastrously but without judgment. Stern’s style here is telegraphic and supple, rendering both the inchoate talents and their cryptic mentor with equal facility.
Two Stitch shards land in Almonds to Zhoof (as does a trio of “blow-bys” from the 2001 novel Pacific Tremors). The collection’s title playfully encapsulates Stern’s encyclopedic range, and there are indeed numerous informational nuggets within, happy by-products of having so many professorial protagonists. But the title also directs attention to something else. Unlike Roth and Bellow, Stern isn’t considered a particularly Jewish writer: Wursup’s father is first described as Jewish 200 pages in; OMD is undiluted WASP; and it didn’t occur to Stern that Hondorp, antihero of his 1960 debut, Golk, was Jewish until after he’d written it. Curiously, both title stories, “Almonds” and “Zhoof,” share anti-Semitism as a crucial thematic element. In the former, journalist Dortmund (who narrates two other strong tales here) gets involved in a film project about Walter Benjamin. While in Frankfurt, he’s transfixed by an old photo in the paper of a local bridge: “On it was carved a sow whose shit-clogged asshole was being offered to the long, dripping tongue of a hook-nosed gentleman in a yarmulke.” The image infects the rest of his time in Germany. In “Zhoof,” a Jewish American traveler in Europe hears a fellow passenger remark “zhoof,” which he thinks corresponds to the pejorative version of juif, Jew. “Every book conceals a book,” Stern writes elsewhere in this collection. Is it too much to think of Almonds to Zhoof as Stern’s secret revelation?