An Unsung Master Offers Sorrow (and Yuks)

Almonds to Zhoof: Collected Stories

By Richard Stern

TriQuarterly Books/Northwestern University Press,

611 pages, $29.95.

By Peter Orner

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STERN: A new collection includes 49 short stories.

In a review of Bernard Malamud’s stories, Richard Stern once called Malamud “the poet of the American depression.” Call Stern the bard of postwar American failure.

And although his stories are far denser and headier, he shares with Malamud a common peculiarly American sorrow. In “Almonds to Zhoof: Collected Stories,” a monumental, career-culminating book of stories, desperation and comedy combine to form a great collective ache for what could have been, what might have been.

In story after story, characters struggle for a modicum of dignity in a country where there is only one true sin: lack of success. These people fail in their careers (Stern’s landscape is littered with souls who never have lived up to their own potential or to anybody else’s). They fail as parents, particularly late in life when they are no longer able to quite recognize the children they brought into the world. Most often, though, they fail in love. Love is ever-present in these stories, but always, somehow, just over the edge of the page.

However, none of this defeat is for lack of trying, and it’s the trying that creates the wrenching lyric intensity and humor of so many of these stories. Typical Stern characters (and they are an extremely wide-ranging bunch) have education (often too much), much wit (thankfully) and even, at times, a sufficient amount of money. Still, it’s never enough. Something is always missing, and Stern’s characters are forever seeking ways to fix the gaping hole in their hearts.

In the mournfully beautiful “The Ideal Address,” Winnie (two children, two degrees, supports herself selling real estate in Chicago) must fly to Denver to comfort her daughter, Nora, who finds herself unable to have her own children. Winnie “had never been close to Nora,” but in Colorado, she makes a connection to her daughter — only to find that this newfound love, as so often happens in these stories, is eventually undermined by a past that continually rises up and spoils things.

So many of these stories focus on infinitely complex relationships between parents and children, with quite a number centered on the loneliness of fatherhood, a recurring subject and one in which Stern has long had an interest. (Among his 21 books is the novel “A Father’s Words.”) Often, Stern’s characters find themselves simply baffled by the very offspring they’ve created and nurtured. Larry Biel, in “In the Illegibility of This World” (the title is taken from a Paul Celan poem), has fared better than most Stern characters. He’s a businessman who has retired wealthy. He’s still relatively happily married. But he struggles with the inability to “read” his son, Peter. A man in his 30s, Peter Biel sells polyvinyl traffic cones and is alone, floundering, too keenly aware that he hasn’t done as well as his father. At one point, after a tennis game, Larry looks at his just-showered son and can’t help being repulsed: “I haven’t seen him naked for years, and I’m a little shocked. He’s very hairy, has a bit of a belly. This man, who as a boy looked like an angel, is into middle age. I look away. I don’t want to see him this way.” The chasm he’d been trying so hard to close, widens further.

If I’ve dwelled thus far on the more sorrowful aspects of Stern’s work, it is because most of these stories left me with a kind of disquiet. However, it must be said, and said forcefully, that few writers tell stories with as much energy, narrative gusto and technical virtuosity as Stern. Take “Lesson for the Day,” which opens with this catapult: “Kiest, with lots of time on his hands — his wife had a job, he didn’t — had fallen for — that is, couldn’t wait to get into the sack with — Angela Deschay, a pie-eyed, soft-voiced, long-legged, frizzily gorgeous assistant professor in his wife Dottie’s department.”

This said, no matter how gallantly these stories launch (and sometimes a reader has some catching up to do before picking up on what’s going on), more often than not they slow down toward the end and depart with pathos, a paradoxically fulfilling emptiness that has earned Stern legitimate comparisons to Chekhov. Too often, whatever it was his characters had fallen for drags them down and they are left with far more questions than answers.

With failure comes either stagnation or roaming. Location plays a significant role in these stories, and characters either flee somewhere else of hunker down. A native New Yorker transplanted to Chicago (Stern taught for decades at the University of Chicago), Stern sings of both cities with equal zest. Other stories range wider, and are often set in European cities such as Rome or Frankfurt. “The Anaximander Fragment,” however, is set even further afield, in Saudi Arabia during the first Gulf War, and it is among the oddest war stories I’ve ever read. Like other Stern stories, it has strong political overtones. There is a remarkable scene where the narrator describes a drive along “death row” in the aftermath of that war. “Sights: a pair of arms hugging an air conditioner, no body; a shoulder, nothing else; a head of hair on half a face in the sand, nothing else; bodies swelled to triple size; two guys in the front seat of a jeep, carbonized like marshmallows; a mustached guy, an officer, his hands on the wheel, and in the back of his face and chest, nothing, gunk.”

Stern isn’t shy about his politics — he tends strongly to the left — and often his characters run the gamut from passionately idealisitc to passionately disillusioned. But politics never overtakes a story, and Stern is not polemical. In “The Anaximander Fragment,” a reservist soldier named Vlach is also a professor of philosophy at Armstrong College in Savannah. (When asked what he teaches, Vlach answers, “skepticism.”) His obsession is the study of two sentences by the Greek philosopher Anaximander. While waiting around in the desert for something to happen, Vlach winds up falling for a forceful, quite loutish woman soldier named Nibbenour. The two take long walks and argue about philosophy. Eventually their relationship turns physical in more ways than one, and Nibbenour ends up kicking Vlach in the groin. He becomes that unit’s only casualty of the war. Before he’s airlifted to Dhahran, Vlach tells his bunkmate why it happened, paraphrasing Anaximander: “Something came into existence between us. We disturbed the order of things; we had to pay the penalty.”

It’s a particular Sternian moment. The penalty for love, as these stories affirm again and again, is a stiff one. Nobody in this universe comes out of these stories unscathed. Love, like silence, as Stern writes elsewhere, withers. Other days it kicks you in the groin. And yet, we’ll take it. Won’t we always take it?

Of America’s most underappreciated writers, Philip Roth wrote more than 30 years ago, “probably none is neglected with such thoroughgoing regularity, with such dedication as Richard Stern. It’s appalling.” It remains appalling in 2005. But this year, there is much good news on this front: this book of 49 stories. Quite simply, Richard Stern has written some of the most distinctive and important American stories of the last 50 years. It is time — again — to trumpet him.

Peter Orner is the author of “Esther Stories”(Mariner Books, 2001) and the forthcoming “The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo” (Little Brown and Company).

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An Unsung Master Offers Sorrow (and Yuks)

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