The Village Idiot by Steve Stern (Melville House 2022) opens with a marvelous boat race on the River Seine in 1917. The already well-known artist Amedeo Modigliani is in a bathtub ostensibly being pulled by a flock of ducks, but actually being hauled by immigrant painter Chaim Soutine. Soutine, a poorly educated, rough, and unmannered immigrant from a shtetl in the Pale of Settlement, is disoriented by the recycled air he breathes into his helmet. As he trudges along the river bottom pulling the bathtub along, he considers his past and future life. Soutine painted as a child even when it led to humiliation and beatings by his father and brothers. Neither the collectors who supported him, the friends (like Modigliani) who stood up for him, or the women who fought over him could get in the way of his painting. But then the Nazis swept across Europe, destroying everything Jewish in their path, including a generation of talented Jewish artists. Some, like Soutine, managed to evade capture. Stern’s gorgeous novel is a sweeping, imaginative story of a great artist who was uniquely brilliant but simultaneously unpleasant and unwashed.
Steve Stern was born in Memphis, Tennessee in 1947, and left to attend college, then to travel before ending up on a hippie commune in the Ozarks. He studied writing in the graduate program at the University of Arkansas, at a time when it included several notable writers who’ve since become prominent, including poet C.D. Wright and fiction writers Ellen Gilchrist, Lewis Nordan, Lee K. Abbott and Jack Butler. In his thirties, Stern accepted a job at a local folklore center where he learned about the city’s old Jewish ghetto, The Pinch, and began to steep himself in Yiddish folklore. His first book, Isaac and the Undertaker’s Daughter, 1983 won the Pushcart Writers’ Choice Award. By decade’s end Stern had won the O. Henry Award, two Pushcart Prize awards, published more collections, including Lazar Malkin Enters Heaven (which won the Edward Lewis Wallant Award for Jewish American Fiction) and the novel Harry Kaplan’s Adventures Underground, and was being hailed by critics, such as Cynthia Ozick, as the successor to Isaac Bashevis Singer. Stern’s 2000 collection The Wedding Jester won the National Jewish Book Award and his novel The Angel of Forgetfulness was named one of the best books of 2005 by The Washington Post. Stern, who teaches at Skidmore College, has also won some notable scholarly awards, including a Fulbright fellowship and the Guggenheim foundations Fellowship. He splits his time between Brooklyn and Balston Spa, New York.