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The Imagination’s Many Rooms

Jay Neugeboren’s “News From the New American Diaspora and Other Tales of Exile” is not only a cause for celebration in its own right but also an occasion to look back at Neugeboren’s long — and varied — career at the writing desk.

Neugeboren’s short stories have been much honored, appearing in some 50 anthologies (including “Best American Short Stories”), winning two O. Henry Prizes and a novella award from Transatlantic magazine. To dream about a world more attractive came with the immigrant Jewish territory, and to write stories about Jews struggling with their fate — this is the dimension prominently on display in his first two collections: “Corky’s Brother” (l969) and “Don’t Worry About the Kids” (l997). The 12 stories collected between the covers of “News From the New American Diaspora” continue the discussion as Neugeboren uses “Diaspora” to include not only physical displacement and exile but also versions of psychological estrangement.

Some of the stories deal with painful comings-of-age (e.g., “Poppa’s Books” and “The Other End of the World”), while others suggest that initiations can happen to the middle aged (“Good in Bed”), too, and even to the elderly (“The Golden Years”). Taken together, the stories suggest that Neugeboren is at the top of his form. At a time when too many American short stories are long on nuance but short on substance, he reaffirms our faith that a well-crafted story should have important things about… well, life.

This is especially true about “The American Sun & Wind Motion Picture Company,” a haunting tale about the making of a silent film on a frozen lake in Fort Lee, N.J., circa l915. The story’s narrator, a young boy named Joey, joins his immigrant family for the shoot, less as an errand boy than as the creative force behind the production. He is precocious in ways that cannot help but remind us of Nathan Malkin and his many rooms:

I could make a story out of anything — a nail, a glass, a shoe, a tree, a mirror, a button, a window, a wall — and for every story I made up and gave away, I also made one up I told no one about — one I stored inside me, in the rooms where I kept my most precious memories and pictures.

Uncle Max taught the narrator that, in ancient times, “men would build memory palaces inside their minds, and in each of the palace’s rooms they would keep furniture.…”

In the early 20th century, motion pictures served as our culture’s collective memory palace. A woman drowning — “She’s caught inside a hole in the ice, trying to climb out, to save herself” — is part of the furniture inside Joey’s memory room, and when he embellishes his dreamlike story by adding a child and a man with a whip in his hand, the necessary elements of a two-reeler melodrama fall into place: “I like it,” Karl, the director, said. “This we can sell — whips, and a mother and child we can weep for, and then a chase.”

Interestingly enough, “The Golden Years,” the story that precedes “The American Sun & Wind Moving Picture Company,” is also about turning stories into film, but this time one of the stories is by Nathan Malkin, the protagonist of Neugeboren’s best-known novel, “The Stolen Jew.” As a Hollywood mover and shaker tells Malkin, “I think we can make a fine movie out of it — as we say in our line of work, and forgive the simplification, it would be like ‘Doctor Zhivago’ meets ‘The Diary of Anne Frank.’” Not surprisingly, Malkin isn’t interested; what he imagines instead is a film about Chaim Rumkowski, elder of the Lodz Ghetto, but one so brutal, so uncompromising that “nobody will be able to stay to see the end of it.”

The story ends as Malkin once again dreams of “writing seven different books at the same time, one in each room of his [Brooklyn] house. Every morning, he thought, he would start in one room and work on that room’s story for an hour or so. Then he would leave the room and go to the next….”

Finally, a word about the collection’s title story. Its long opening sentence juxtaposes aspects of tradition with elements of assimilation, and in the process foreshadows the various “recoveries” at the story’s core: “When the telephone rang, shortly after three a.m., on a cold, early November morning — Officer Ed Sedow- ski calling to say that a lost Torah had been found wandering around the local shopping mall — Rabbi Saul Gewirtz was fast asleep on his living room couch, having taken himself there some two hours before, following a fight with his wife, Pauline.” Initially, recovery centers on the Torah scroll, a repository of stories, Rabbi Gewirtz thinks, that “told of the feuds, vanities, precepts, history, and dreams of those people known as the Jews.” But as Neugeboren’s tale unfolds, “recovery” also applies to the makeup sex — “slowly, passionately, and playfully” — that brings the rabbi and his wife together in the story’s last paragraph, and that, in the final phrase, harkens up the angels who “bear him upwards with them on his journey.”

As many immigrant Jews liked to insist, God created Adam because he was lonely and liked a good story. He created Eve to thicken the plot. I suspect that Neugeboren would agree — although I feel certain that he would put in a good word for “surprise,” an abiding feature of the stories in “News From the New American Diaspora.” The trick, of course, is to both surprise and convince — and Neugeboren’s stories, positioned somewhere between a serious regard for tradition’s abiding power and a clear-eyed sense of assimilation’s assets and liabilities, remind us of what he meant with the final words of his preface: “[T]he stories, though lodged in the details of a particular moment, are also about what, first and last, continues to inspire, and what, I hope, will please readers: the sheer magic and joy of storytelling and of story-making.”

For far too long, Neugeboren has been known as a writer’s writer and as the nurturing teacher of future writers. It is high time for a wider audience of reviewers and readers to explore what continues to go on in his imagination’s many rooms.

Sanford Pinsker is an emeritus professor at Franklin & Marshall College. He now resides in South Florida, where he reads and writes about contemporary American literature on cloudy days.

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News From the New American Diaspora and Other Tales of Exile

By Jay Neugeboren

University of Texas Press, 184 pages, $16.

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