cover image The Village Idiot

The Village Idiot

Steve Stern. Melville House, $27.99 (368p) ISBN 978-1-612-19982-5

Stern (The Pinch) sketches an exuberant portrait of expressionist painter Chaim Soutine, anchored in the artist’s bohemian life in 1917 Paris. Chaim arrives destitute from a Russian shtetl and begins a friendship with painter Amedeo Modigliani. Reclusive and artistically driven, Chaim adores Amedeo and gets caught up in his bold adventures—brothel visits, a duel, and an elaborate boat race hoax where Amedeo is in a bathtub, ostensibly being pulled by three ducks (in reality, Chaim is at the bottom of the Seine pulling Amedeo while wearing a heavyweight diving suit). While underwater, Chaim ponders his past and, in a fantastical twist, anticipates the years to come: the poverty and beatings of his youth; the mystical “demidemons” that haunt his imagination; his discovery by art patron Dr. Albert Barnes, whose patronage brings recognition and financial security; his friendship with art historian Élie Faure; the stability brought by Mademoiselle Garde, whom he loved; the WWII years in German-occupied France as Chaim tries to outrun the Nazis; and his chronic stomach problems that will ultimately lead to his death from a perforated ulcer. Stern brings the slovenly, uncouth, and smelly Chaim to life as a modern art visionary, adding humor and heartache to the inspired artist’s painful and tragic life, and he shines in his use of Jewish folklore and characters. This luscious blend of fantasy and reality captivates. (Sept.)