From Publishers Weekly
Heaven and earth engage in a tug of war over the Jewish soul in this sprawling historical bildungsroman. Stern (The Wedding Jester) combines three distinct but interlinked narratives. The first tells the story of Nathan Hart, a Jewish immigrant on the Lower East Side circa 1910 who woos young Jewish bohemian Keni by telling her the second narrative-a tale about an angel named Mocky and his half-human son, Nachman, both of them also living on the Lower East Side in self-imposed exile from heaven. The third narrative belongs to Keni's nephew Saul, a morose, lonely young man who embarks on an odyssey through the post-Vietnam sexual and psychedelic revolutions that takes him to a hippie commune and an avant-garde theater troupe before he settles down as a hermetic Jewish-studies scholar. The many intersections between the stories of Nathan, Mocky, Nachman and Saul suggest the timelessness of a certain Jewish variant of male alienation, as the protagonists struggle-and usually fail-to assimilate and find themselves torn between the carnal and the spiritual. The novel's greatest strength is its colorful depiction of life in a turn-of-the-century Jewish New York full of gangsters, whores, shopkeepers, socialists, artists and yellow journalists, which Stern renders with a piquant Yiddish inflection and a light dusting of magical realism. Somewhat out of place is the story of Saul, a Portnoy-esque figure desperate to lose his virginity, both obsessed with and repelled by the countercultural sexual carnival whirling around him. Stern serves up vivid characters and atmospherics and an often poetic picaresque, but never integrates the novel's complex structure into a satisfying whole.
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*Starred Review* The bright humor, colorful characters, and potent blend of realism and Jewish mysticism found in Stern's earlier work, particularly The Wedding Jester
(1999), attain deeper resonance in his enrapturing new novel. A far-roaming serial bildungsroman, it encompasses a century and links the amazing adventures of an angel called Mocky, who ensures that newborns forget "their prenatal knowledge of paradise" until he falls in love with life on earth; his half-human son, Nachman; Nathan, a proofreader for the Jewish Daily Forward
circa 1910 who is at once blessed and cursed with a gift for storytelling; and misfit Saul, who comes to New York from Memphis to attend college in 1969 but who learns the most from an aging relative, the chain-smoking painter Keni. Like the Tree of Life in the Jewish mystical tradition, Stern's vividly picaresque and ingeniously plotted novel intricately meshes earth and heaven, past and present, body and soul as it captures the spirit of the now fabled Lower East Side, with its packed Yiddish theaters and fierce Jewish gangsters; a hippie commune in Arkansas; and a haunted synagogue in Prague. Stern's magical, sexy, suspenseful, and cleverly metaphysical saga brilliantly contrasts the lure of the imagined world with the greater promise of life itself. Donna SeamanCopyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved