The Pinch: A History/​A Novel

  • Review
By – June 12, 2015

Not a tra­di­tion­al his­tor­i­cal nov­el, The Pinch: A History/​A Nov­el is as the title states: both fact and fic­tion. The Mem­phis neigh­bor­hood known as the Pinch, once the cen­ter of a thriv­ing Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty, pro­vides a rich back­drop for Steve Stern’s novel. 

In 1968 the Pinch is an aban­doned seedy neigh­bor­hood where the lapsed Eng­lish major Lenny Sklarew is one of the only res­i­dents. While work­ing at the Book Asy­lum book­store, he dis­cov­ers to his dis­may that he is a char­ac­ter in a book pub­lished six­teen years ear­li­er, in 1952. Like a fun­house of mir­rors, Stern’s nov­el fea­tures The Pinch, A His­to­ry by Muni Pinsker, in which 1968 Lenny’s per­son­age is read­ing about 1968 Lenny Sklarew read­ing about 1968 Lenny and so forth.

Stern’s nov­el shifts between 1968 and the chron­i­cles writ­ten by Muni in the 1890s, giv­ing the read­er a per­spec­tive on both worlds. Lenny’s realm con­sists of a drug deal­er land­lord, an enig­mat­ic book­store own­er, and an out-of-his-league girl­friend; Muni’s Pinch is a place where time does not flow lin­ear­ly — and some­times it does­n’t flow at all. A group of fanat­i­cal Has­sids have manip­u­lat­ed the cos­mos to cre­ate a fan­ta­sy-woven world where the impos­si­ble hap­pens. Muni’s mys­ti­cal world is sur­round­ed by actu­al events, but in no par­tic­u­lar order, as the past and present intersect.

Rich with Amer­i­can (and some Russ­ian) his­to­ry, Stern takes us through the Russ­ian pogroms of 1881, the yel­low fever epi­dem­ic in Mem­phis, race riots, and more. The book is clev­er­ly pep­pered with his­tor­i­cal gems like Elvis Presley’s expe­ri­ence as a Shab­bos goy. Con­ve­nient­ly, there is an accu­rate time­line, in his­tor­i­cal order, locat­ed in the narrative. 

Despite the fact that time is not lin­ear and char­ac­ters come in and out of the nar­ra­tive, the book is easy to fol­low and well writ­ten. It is chock-full of Yid­dish, and while Stern takes pains to pro­vide con­text, a Yid­dish dic­tio­nary in the appen­dix would have been a nice addition.

The Pinch is a grip­ping tale, crammed with his­to­ry and well worth the read.

Relat­ed Content:


Read Beth Kissilef­f’s inter­view with Steve Stern here.

Read Steve Stern’s Posts for the Vis­it­ing Scribe

Dis­cov­er­ing the Pinch: Part I

Dis­cov­er­ing the Pinch: Part II; or, Ani­mat­ing a Lit­er­ary Golem

Cathy Sussman’s pas­sion is books. She grad­u­at­ed magna cum laude with a B.A. in Eng­lish from the Col­lege of St. Thomas in St. Paul Min­neso­ta. She lives in Min­neapo­lis with her hus­band, chil­dren, dog and cat. For her day job, she spe­cial­izes in rein­sur­ance and is a prin­ci­pal at Dubras­ki & Associates.

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