I haven’t read more than three chapters of Steve Stern’s The Frozen Rabbi, but I’m moved to blog about it straight away for a couple of good reasons.
First off, I just love the title, and the premise of the book. The novel starts with a fifteen year old boy rooting around in his family’s giant freezer – a kelvinator – groping around for a piece of meat (inspired by his reading of Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint). Instead of a hand-replacing slice of liver he comes across a frozen rabbi. In the three words of the title you’ve got a beautiful mix of the concrete and the fantastic, the surreal and the solid.
The premise, though, in the hands of the wrong author could be a disaster. It’s clear, though, from the first two chapters, that you’re in safe hands, with author Steve Stern. There’s comic timing, a love of words, and a sure-handedness in the telling that sweeps you along – which is important, given the patently absurd plot device. Stern is new to me, though he’s won awards and grants by the bucketload, has been praised by the likes of Sontag and Ozick, and has been hailed by many as a natural succesor to Isaac Bashevis Singer (his Angel of Forgetfullness was listed by the Washington Post as one of the best books of 2005 ).
Here’s a taster:
Sometime during his restless fifteenth year, Bernie Karp discovered in his parents’ food freezer—a white-enameled Kelvinator humming in its corner of the basement rumpus room—an old man frozen in a block of ice. [...] Shoving aside rump roasts, Butterballs, and pork tenderloins in his quest, Bernie delved deeper among the frozen foods than he’d ever had occasion to search. [...] Scattering individually wrapped filets, tossing packages of French fries, niblets, and peas, Bernie was able to discern beneath the rippled surface of the ice the unmistakable shape of a man. It was an old man with a narrow, hawkish face, gouged cheeks, and a stringy yellow beard, his head wreathed in a hat like a lady’s muff. His gaunt body was enveloped in a papery black garment that extended to the knees, below which his sticklike calves, crossed at the ankles, were sheathed in white stockings. His feet were shod in buckled bluchers that curled at the toes, his arms folded be-hind his head as if he were taking a luxurious nap.
From the plump protagonists’s name through to the items that he moves aside in the freezer, and the Rabbi’s napping position, Stern’s language and choices make me smile and want to read on.
Next, the book is published by Algonquin books, whom i discovered through Laila Lalami‘s excellent Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits. I’ve only read a small amount of their books, but each one has been a gem -from the aforementioned Lalami through to Lauren Grodstein’s A Friend of the Family (one of the best books I read last year), and Jack O’Connel’s recently reviewed The Resurrectionist. What they all have in common is that, while they may have a reasonable profile in the United States, they are largely unknown on this side of the Atlantic – and in that context a publisher becomes a context which recommends the work.
And finally, you can read a very large extract of the novel online over at the Tablet magazine, which serialised the book over a period of ten weeks.