St. Louis native earns awards, acclaim

BY ROBERT A. COHN, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF EMERITUS

St. Louis was home to an unusually large number of writers, both Jewish and non-Jewish whose works have had a major impact on the world of letters: Tennessee Williams, T. S. Eliot, William Burroughs, Harold Brodkey, Carl Dennis, Howard Schwartz, Michael Castro and others too numerous to mention were either born in St. Louis or spent significant periods of their lives in our community.

To that illustrious list, which includes Nobel Prize, Pulitzer Prize, National Book Award and National Jewish Book Award recipients, must be added the name of St. Louis native Stacey Levine, whose work has received both critical acclaim and significant literary awards.

Born in St. Louis, Stacey Levine now lives in Seattle, Washington, and has published numerous short stories as well as novels, drawing rave reviews, comparing her literary voice to those of “the best of Flannery O’Connor and Jane Bowles,” and drawing praise for her “inexplicably crafted prose, with its eerie atmospherics and understated humor.”

Levine’s published books include My Horse and Other Stories (1993); Dra– (1997) and Frances Johnson , her most recent novel, which was strongly praised in a review in The New Review of Literature. Wrote the reviewer: “About a third of the way through reading Stacey Levine’s new novel, Frances Johnson , I commented to a friend that, unlike so many American fictions which seem to plow through plot and character like a thresher mowing down rows of corn (if rows might be understood as chapters), this was a wonderfully lazy narrative, a story that seemed to have no particular place to go and all the time in the world to take you there.”

The reviewer is right on the mark; Levine indeed takes her time to let her stories unfold, both short fiction and her novels, and the reader is enveloped in her unique view of the world and its foibles as seen through her often quirky protagonists. One is in no hurry to get through these stories, but none of them are intimidatingly long.

Levine’s first two published books were produced by Sun & Moon Press, of which Douglas Messerli served as editor for over 20 years. In his affectionate memoir of his years as Sun & Moon editor, My Year 2005: Terrifying Times (Green Integer Press), Messerli includes a glowing review of Levine’s work.

“Stacey Levine is one of my favorite authors,” Messerli writes, calling her “a writer uncovered, if not ‘discovered’ by Sun & Moon Press. When I began the press, I personally answered every author who sent me a manuscript; over time, however, it became quite apparent that the writers who sent us work ‘over the transom,’ so to speak, had little idea of what we were publishing. During the twenty some years I edited Sun & Moon, I accepted only two manuscripts written by authors I’d never heard of before — and one of those, a collection of stories by Wendy Walker, had come recommended. By 1991 or 1992, when Stacey sent her unsolicited manuscript to us, I was basically not reading new work. Then senior editor Ann Klefstad would, from time to time, take up the stack of unsolicited works, answering each of them with a form letter. But Ann was also a conscientious soul, and she often read parts of the manuscripts before she returned them.”

One such manuscript “was a collection of short stories by then-unknown writer Stacey Levine,” Messerli continues. “These tales, needless to say, were extremely compelling, written in a carefully crafted language that stunned me. I immediately accepted the work, and we published the book to some acclaim in 1993 as My Horse and Other Stories . The collection won the PEN Center USA Award for Fiction. A few years later, in 1997, we published Levine’s first novel, Dra– , which immediately sold out of its first printing.”

One reviewer described My Horse and Other Stories , Levine’s first collection of short fiction as reading “with such precisely turned sentences that it seems to have been written with a scalpel.”

The reviewer describes the stories as ranging “from otherworldly, opaque portraits to claustrophobic domestic studies,” noting that “in the title story, the narrator has a small pet horse, whose loose skin gradually develops scabby rings and sores. With painful psycho-logic, the story recounts the narrator’s various and changing attitudes toward the pet, as the physical deterioration of the animal is reflected in the owner’s shift from love to abuse.” The story is timely in view of the added attention resulting from NFL player Michael Vick’s admitted involvement with illegal dog fights and the killing of dogs who did not “perform” well.

Some of Levine’s darker metaphors and themes may not be for everybody; there are frequent references to physical deformities, blackened teeth or conjoined twins. But Messerli describes these images as “becoming haunting metaphors for the unreasonable, unfathomable burden of existence that she conveys in wickedly enthralling prose.”

Dra– was Levine’s first long fictional published work, and it too has dark images and moods, which Messerli says “takes the reader into the comic, yet dystopic world of the title character, who inhabits a drab and dreary world of utter dread. The work begins with her visit to an employment agency which punishes the terrified woman for being unable to choose between potential jobs, culminating in a terrifying vision of rage and torture which the all-controlling Administrator proclaims is merely self-tyranny.”

Levine’s world is called Kafka-like, and in that sense it reflects a secular Jewish world view that is marginalized and off-center.

Reading Levine’s books, one can imagine them being adapted into graphic novels.

While Levine’s work may resist being transferred to stage or screen, her unque blending of a fear-inducing, strange world and unexpected biting humor would lend itself to adapation to the graphic novel format.

Levine’s Dra– explores “how the meek and sane are made mad in a society that demands choice and control,” writes Messerli.

“Levine’s character’s may have difficulty in functioning in the so-called ‘normal’ world, but in her exploration of that world we recognize that the terror they feel is justified as we witness, with increasing horror, the insanity of the world we ourselves inhabit.”

If you believe that indeed in today’s violence, crime and corruption ridden world, “the lunatics have taken over the asylum,” Levine’s works may give you some added intellectual and emotional tools to cope with that worldview.

In any event, Stacey Levine can truly take her place in the Pantheon of Literary Greats from St. Louis.

All three of her published works, My Horse and Other Stories , Dra– , and Frances Johnson are available at most book stores in affordable paperbacks.

They should be part of your library and deserve a wide audience.

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