Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle Off the Bookshelf

JULY 26, 1999: 

The Wedding Jester by Steve Stern (Graywolf Press), $14, paper

A flying rabbi, a seducing succubus, and a voyeuristic prophet are among the surreal characters who populate The Wedding Jester, a collection of stories that brings to vivid relief the superstitions, customs, and experiences of old-world Jewish immigrants against the bustling and often disaffecting American landscape. Stern writes his unabashedly partisan tales with prose that is crisp and terse, and with a tone that is reverent and comic, all of which add a wry twist to the well-described Jewish-American subconscious. Even though these stories are heavily ladened with clichéd Jewish characterizations, the stories convey a compassion and nostalgia for those Yiddish-speaking souls whose essence and faith were quickly diluted into the American mainstream. Stern's stories are fun, if only for the novelty of the characters and their oddly deprecated identities, like the blushing bride who becomes possessed by the spirit of a foul-mouthed stand-up comic. -- Annine Miscoe

A Community of Writers edited by Robert Dana (University of Iowa Press), $17.95, paper

The rise of MFA programs in creative writing began in the 1940s with the boundless energy of Paul Engle, who first conceived the simple but brilliant idea to midwife talent through workshops within academia. A Community of Writers: Paul Engle and the Iowa Writers' Workshop sings a paean to Engle, who finagled funding, gained national press coverage, and sought talent from around the globe to assemble a cosmopolitan cast of faculty and students in the unlikely province of the University of Iowa. The breathtaking list of those who taught or matriculated at Iowa -- many of whom here contribute testaments of their experiences -- validates Engle's redefinition of education for writers. This book also sketches workshop experiences, including the amazing account of Flannery O'Connor, a student at Iowa in the late Forties, who submitted a story so well written that the workshop had nothing to offer her -- so they simply adjourned. -- Mason West

The Girls' Guide to Hunting and Fishing by Melissa Bank (Viking), $23.95, hard

I wish I'd had Melissa Bank's wry narrator Jane with me as a guide in my hunting days. Her sharp tongue and abject insecurity would have provided both comfort and company. A novel, a short story collection, a guide to avoiding the pitfalls of being daughter/lover/career woman, Bank's first book is both a keeper and a loser. Four stars for witty recollections of suburban life. Four stars for a chilling account of the mystery and misery of January/December romance. Four stars for a bone-chilling tour of a career woman's inner psyche. No stars for breast cancer story. No stars for shoddy construction. Given that Banks earned about $2.45 per word on this book, it's a bargain at any price for girls on the hunt. -- Robin Bradford

Police and Thieves by Peter Plate (Seven Stories Press), $20, hard

Author Peter Plate is preceded (and maybe exceeded) by an interesting bio. To wit: He taught himself to write while homeless in San Francisco -- a squatter in abandoned buildings in the treacherous Mission District. That streetwise and rootless lifestyle is the most interesting part of his sixth novel Police and Thieves. It gives the reader a front-row glimpse into the harsh realities of being penniless and adrift. Doojie, our young narrator, is almost certainly the first overtly Jewish urban drug dealer/squatter in literature. He has witnessed a cop shooting a civilian; thus, he's hiding in plain sight from the shooter. Despite a few entertaining moments as a loser in a winner's world, Doojie's story rings hollow. Unlike the grungy details of squatter life that Plate brings to the page, the rest of the novel simply doesn't add up. In the end, Police and Thieves might be worth the effort as a voyeuristic exercise in slumming. But it's probably not the novel Peter Plate thought he was writing. -- Mike Shea

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