Growing up in Beaufort, Bernie Schein knew everyone and everyone knew him.
In a small town, everyone is famous.
This was the premise for Schein's latest book, which explores the intimate clash of characters in the fictional Southern hamlet of Somerset.
"Famous All Over Town" is based on Schein's Beaufort upbringing, and Somerset is "certainly suspiciously like Beaufort," he said.
The story spans the 1960s through the 1990s, shifting perspectives between a cast of colorful individuals that includes a Southern Jewish lawyer, a New York psychiatrist, a Marine drill sergeant, a corrupt sheriff and a black prostitute.
The book begins with a version of the infamous Ribbon Creek incident at Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, which resulted in the death of six recruits.
"That was my first acquaintance with death," Schein said. "When I sat down to write, that scene came to me out of the blue."
Although Schein uses a number of real people and events as jumping-off points, the book is ultimately a work of fiction.
"When your memory combines with imagination, facts become irrelevant. Details become important," he said. "This is not a history. It's a story."
"Famous All Over Town" is the third book from Story River Books, a new fiction imprint edited by Lowcountry author Pat Conroy. Conroy endorsed "Famous" as "hysterically funny, wildly neurotic, uniquely sensitive and heartbreakingly honest."
Full disclosure: Schein and Conroy have been friends since childhood, and Schein has appeared in a number of Conroy's books.
Schein returned the favor in "Famous" by giving Conroy a cameo as Somerset's most inspirational teacher. Both Schein and Conroy were educators before they became authors.
"I wanted to show he was a great teacher. He's a much better teacher than a friend. As a friend, he's a pain in the (butt)," Schein joked.
The book also explores the curious notion of the Jewish Southerner, something Schein, who is Jewish, said was once as alien as a Jewish cowboy or a Jewish sumo wrestler.
"People up North thought it was horrible down here for Jews. (But) we were respected and liked," he said. "We felt special."
Schein said he did feel like a minority at times, however. He didn't know a thing about cars, or how to fish or hunt like his non-Jewish classmates. He also liked to talk -- loudly and often -- and argue, two traits frowned upon in genteel Southern society.
This dichotomy is reflected in Jewish characters Murray Gold and Bert Levy. Gold is from Somerset, and Levy is from New York. Levy can't seem to wrap his head around Gold's twangy accent.
"I knew the Southern Jew was unexplored territory," Schein said, "but (the book) is really about everybody."
The central character is arguably the town itself, which Schein describes in loving detail.
While uncertain whether his next endeavor will be a blog, a memoir or a collection of stories, one thing is for sure: It will be about Beaufort.
Follow reporter Erin Shaw at twitter.com/IPBG_ErinShaw.
- Bernie Schein's website
- 'Reflections of South Carolina' with Pat Conroy can fill a library of books
- Beaufort author John Warley fictionalizes personal story of adopting child in 'A Southern Girl'