The Pinch: A History/A Novel

Graywolf Press  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

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