Charyn, Jerome (Vol. 18)
Charyn, Jerome 1937–
Charyn is an American novelist, short story writer, playwright, and editor. Although his early books were traditional, since the late 1960s Charyn has been writing antirealist novels that show affinities with the works of Nabokov and Hawkes. All his fiction is distinguished by his fluent, inventive language and comedic sense. (See also CLC, Vols. 5, 8, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)
Jerome Charyn seems at first [in The Franklin Scare] to be writing a historical novel about the last days of FDR—the action takes place in 1944 and 1945—and he gives us Yalta, the altruism of Mrs. Roosevelt, and the obtrusive campaign of Dewey. But he refuses to offer official versions. He is after bigger game. By introducing perverse, mad and unreal characters, he suggests that "History," as we were taught it, is simply another story.
Charyn mixes categories. He takes apparently factual details—say FDR's passion for stamps—but he dwells upon them so that they become "magical" and distorted. He thus affirms that solemn greatness is close to dreamy vanity—and by doing...
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[Jerome Charyn in "The Franklin Scare"] has tamed his prose and makes it perform tricks. It is a New York prose, street-smart, sly and full of lurches, like a series of subway stops on the way to hell. It sets its energy from popular culture, and its essential moral concerns arrive in a kind of drag of language, a hip uniform, thumbs hooked in the belt. It will never allow itself to sound corny, but, always in motion, always angling, it gets the job done, as if selling us a bridge or a silo of olive oil.
And yet what is so astonishing and satisfying about "The Franklin Scare" is that, inside its pop conventions and its hip parodies, it likes Eleanor and Franklin every bit as much as Joseph Lash does....
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"Once Upon a Droshky" was the title of Jerome Charyn's first novel, and that title might serve as a lead-in to his 12th and latest, "Secret Isaac." There are strong elements of the fairy tale in this curious book. Whores and pimps take the place of princesses and their keepers, big-city corruption is the glass mountain, politicians are the wizards, and Isaac Sidel, secret Isaac, is the disguised prince….
It's difficult to be sure what Jerome Charyn is getting at in this frenetic novel. For a reader familiar with some of the earlier adventures of Isaac Sidel contained in "Blue Eyes," "Marilyn the Wild" and "The Education of Patrick Silver," that heuristic thread would perhaps begin to reveal a...
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You've got to attend closely to Jerome Charyn. He's ambitious, daring, but quietly so. "The Seventh Babe" starts out as a fairly conventional baseball novel but modulates into something more strange and wonderful and decidedly south-of-the-border. (p. 12)
[Well] before the book is half over, Mr. Charyn explodes the genre and the reader's expectations. Rags turns out to be neither orphan nor hayseed, but the son of a copper millionaire. So much for the coming of age of a young ballplayer. Still more disconcerting, the book doesn't end with the close of the season—a formal absolute of the baseball novel—but willfully continues through season after season. Rags becomes the darling of Boston; he gets...
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["The Seventh Babe" is] the American dream of baseball re-enacted as nightmare, a hallucinated image of what lies outside of the official histories and record books. Anyone brought up on the traditional myths is bound to find the novel irritating and disturbing. I certainly did. But then … there's a lot more to the game than its traditional myths. (p. 288)
Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, "Two on Baseball," in The New York Times, Section III (© 1979 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), June 18, 1979 (and reprinted in Books of the Times, Vol. II, No. 6, 1979, pp. 286-88).∗
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[Mr. Charyn's] operating principle is to behave as if there were no such thing as an anti-climax; as if, whether or not there's a palace of wisdom at the end of it, the road of excess is the only road to take. He is determined at all costs to be the sort of novelist that appalled Ford Madox Ford—a novelist of the new breed as described and exemplified by Wyndham Lewis: "Letting off brilliant fireworks. Performing like dogs on tight ropes. Something to give them the idea they're at a performance." Mr. Charyn's best previous performances might arguably be located in the early childhood section of "On the Darkening Green" (1965) or in the grotesqueries of "Blue Eyes" (1974), a thriller with an unfollowable story but...
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Jerome Charyn seems to handicap himself right off by giving the first-person lead of [The Catfish Man] to a ringer named "Jerome Charyn." Hasn't the word gone out among novelists to lay off that one for a while? But then, one of Charyn's best acts is playing dumb. His apparently self-assertive gesture gives this mock autobiography … an atmosphere of flaky exhiliration. No snob appeal here, and the subtitle offers us "a conjured life," so as I begin to read I rashly decide that The Catfish Man is going to show us how life in general, and Charyn's in particular, can be reimagined. To serve his metaphor, we can with a kick of our tails swim upstream against fate, especially if we're up to sniffing which...
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Charyn, Jerome (Vol. 5)
Charyn, Jerome 1937–
Charyn is an American novelist and short story writer. While his early realistic works limn Yiddish New York, his recent writing is increasingly impressionistic and concerned with other aspects of contemporary life. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)
Rhythm is one important key to the enormous effectiveness of [The Man Who Grew Younger and Other Stories,] seven glimpses into the lost world of the Bronx in the early 1940s, rhythm lashed on by fury and graced by all manner of strange delights. Jerome Charyn's New York, which is conveniently sketched in a two-page map at the beginning of the book, is filled with hardened Dead End Kids, bewildered parents, hazardous streets and parks, and a brooding sense of doom. A good place to grow up absurd, perverse, traumatized, and somehow resilient enough to withstand the blows of adult life—if only one can survive. There is a freshness and yet a face-slapping impact in these stories that one won't find in most slick or academic magazines, and it is also this quality of differentness that makes Charyn's collection unusually forceful and artistically successful….
Charyn's New York is [a] land of horror, brutality, and lurking evil. There is a strange forlorn quality to his stories, which seem like realistic representations of the lower depths of a cruel, teeming metropolis. Redemption comes, if at all, only through a fierce determination to survive, a rhythm of resistance, and a passion to communicate one's fears and wants. Perhaps someone who is not an enemy may be listening after all, and may even be able to do some good.
Samuel I. Bellman, "A Good Place to Grow Up Absurd," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1967 by Saturday Review, Inc.; reprinted with permission), January 14, 1967, p. 85.
Private visions do not always make public benefits. Esthetic distance is all right in its way, but not when it promotes stumbling blocks and credibility gaps. A broad canvas in a novel prevents boredom and yet invites divided attention. All of which points may be quite irrelevant today with the increasing importance of that amazing new literary art form, the subliminal novel.
Jerome Charyn's Going to Jerusalem, a wild, zany mélange of sketches, revelations, and epistles, is just such a work. Too disorganized for the narrow, conventional taste, this novel calls up moods and responses below the threshold of consciousness…. [Symbols] are not forced on the reader, and the parts of the story have more than surface meaning. We are not dealing here with Hemingway's story-iceberg, or the myths and icons of Freud, Jung, and Fiedler. There is not even a convenient Jamesian "figure in the carpet." Charyn, like the central characters in his book, travels a tortuous road to self-discovery in which purpose, direction, markers, and right-of-way fade into a kaleidoscopic blur. (pp. 34-5)
At the end the reader is left hanging in mid-air.
The high point of the novel is Ivan's encounter with three Negro minstrels, who put on a series of allegorical impromptu acts to express their social protest. Here Charyn is at his best and funniest, and we get the idea that there must be rhyme and reason behind the going-to-Jerusalem traveling game. Perhaps the cruel father (the Admiral), the feckless epileptic Ivan, and the six-year-old chess genius really represent Dostoevskian ideas about good and evil, struggle and strife, that can no longer be meaningfully expressed in conventional terms. This would explain the lack of resolution in the plot and the steady hinting of something big about to happen that never quite does. (p. 35)
Samuel I. Bellman, "Traveling Game," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1967 by Saturday Review, Inc.; reprinted with permission), September 9, 1967, pp 34-5.
The career of Jerome Charyn … illuminates the plight, and the opportunities too, of a very gifted young novelist over the decade 1963–73: a writer much aware of contemporary life, fascinated by "real reality", but aware too of what is "going on" in fiction. (Joyce Carol Oates would have provided an example almost as striking). At the beginning of the decade it would have seemed natural, in writing about Charyn's first books, to refer to Philip Roth and Malamud as well as Dickens. By its end one feels affinities with Hawkes (Eisenhower, My Eisenhower) and Nabokov (The Tar Baby); with, that is, central anti-realist impulsions. Over the decade we see an intensifying effort to make it new, to keep up with changing trends, yet withal a determination to preserve some of the old fictional pleasures, most notably the swarming talkative vis comica of subcultures. Charyn is aware too of that other problem that has plagued writers for two generations: how to write about a society and time that dwarf one's wildest imaginings. Can fiction hope to compete, in absurdity and violence, with the newspaper or with the "new journalism"? Finally, not least, Charyn has had to face the economic problem: where has the public gone? How can one write uncompromisingly good fiction, entertaining yet uncommercial, and still win a few readers? (p. 36)
Charyn's talent at the outset was traditional in a fine uninhibited way: Dickensian, but within a New York Jewish world. The impulse to create life and to tell stories was exceptionally strong: "Your loneliness goes down in proportion to the number of characters on a page." "The Man Who Grew Younger" and "Sing, Shaindele, Sing" belong with Malamud's "The Magic Barrel" and Gold's "The Heart of the Artichoke": comic, poignant, rich in personality, wise—great stories all four. Charyn's characters experience various forms of generation gap, and the sadness of a vanishing culture. The Dickensian bent appears in the richly loquacious, irrepressible caricatures of Once upon a Droshky, and the climactic mock-heroic scene: a cafeteria become a battlefield. We have a rhetorical embellishment of real reality rather than a magic reinvention of the world. Dickensian too is the tendency to give a child's animistic view of things and to reverse child/parent roles … though Charyn's most sympathetic treatment is of adolescents and their attachments to older men: tender father-son relationships, usually disguised. There is not much adult heterosexual love in Charyn's work, nor much that is unequivocally homosexual, and depth psychology has little place. Sexual experience involves a good deal of scatological fun and much language play. Sexuality is rhetorical, in the way psychology is for Hawkes and Kosinski. Charyn had discovered, with many others, that this overwrought subject was by the late 1960's chiefly suitable for parody or farce.
Two other traditional drives were evident from the start. The first was the impulse, which few mediocre writers exhibit, to create sympathy for the foolish and the depraved: to discover, in Mauriac's fine phrase, "the secret sources of sanctity in those who seem to have failed." The second was simply the desire to look up, learn, assimilate, relish a great deal of detail, not for detail's sake, but out of an openness to the American scene. Charyn's novels encompass a good deal of knowledge. All this is but to describe a novelistic makeup not unlike that of Saul Bellow a generation earlier, though without Bellow's effort, in the quiet early novels, to reflect a drab quotidian reality. Each talent or thrust is present in Charyn in a more intense, more eccentric form. (Which leads one to ask: Where would Bellow have gone, how far would he have come, had he first published in 1963 or been born in 1937?)
Charyn's congenial material is evident: the swarming streets, the Yiddish actors and writers, the cafes, the talk: essentially New York Jewish with a background of eastern Europe. But Charyn tried, still in his twenties, to go beyond this given subject-matter…. Charyn moved, not too successfully, to upstate New York and a reform school, in On a Darkening Green. His narrator is not Jewish, but at one point pretends to be, and a rabbi is surely the novel's most moving personage…. There are good moments of comic disorder. But technically the novel is of little interest: conventional in structure, chronologically undisrupted, with a relatively dull narrative consciousness. The method tended to limit rather than encourage Charyn's natural impulse to the fabulous; once again, the world is embellished not reinvented. There is no sign, as yet, that Charyn was fully aware of anti-realist possibilities.
A very uneven book, Going to Jerusalem,… [reveals] the first definite influence of both Hawkes and Nabokov on [Charyn's] fiction. There is a significant shift, within the novel, from the playful, mildly realistic story of a prodigy's chess tour (with increasing sympathy for his antagonist the aged ex-Nazi Kortz) to more and more surrealist disorder…. Rhetorically, there is an interesting pull between the frenetic effort to be more and more lively, more and more present, and Charyn's evident talent for impressionist, meditative narration. At the heart of any young writer's situation, of course, is the struggle to discover what will be for him the most congenial form and narrative distance.
Going to Jerusalem is a novel full of fictional ideas, rich in Dickensian geniality and comic life, admirable in its effort to achieve a freer form; finally boring.
American Scrapbook is Charyn's one truly unsuccessful book…. [In this novel,] Charyn does use what is, for him, a new technique: multiple voices narrating through interior monologues and recording present action as it unrolls, an exceedingly difficult mode, as Faulkner was to find in As I Lay Dying. Charyn had not discerned (and would not entirely in his next book) how uncongenial for him this entrapment in the fictional present could be. (pp. 37-9)
Eisenhower, My Eisenhower is Charyn's first genuinely antirealist, mythologizing extravaganza and first major effort to reflect the absurd aspects of contemporary urban violence: the riots of 1968, I assume, though the novel is laid at the time of an Eisenhower election. (pp. 39-40)
The Tar Baby [is] a novel on the level of all but Nabokov's best … and one that must, like Nabokov's, be read intensively rather than casually, with an alert eye for distortion and nuance. (p. 41)
The Tar Baby … is a highly involuted novel [which] combines Pnin's comic pathos of the émigré and miscast intellectual and Pale Fire's shuttlings between a problematic reality and slippery conjecture; the story unfolds, and a world incrementally builds, but only with the reader's most active collaboration. The resemblances to Nabokov are in fact superficial, though influence is unmistakable: Charyn's voice, even at its most suave, is his own: a compressed, ruggedly accented style, inventive yet precise even in moments of abysmal vulgarity. The exaggerations and comic excursions are those Dickens might have managed had he pushed his way further west and been born one hundred and twenty five years later. Dickens' name suggests itself again because of the need, even in this fairly intellectual book, to create vivid minor characters. The fierce pleasures and unregenerate humanity of Martin Chuzzlewit and the American journey! (p. 42)
The Tar Baby is more than any of the earlier books a rhetorical work, manipulating the reader as it shifts tones and modes, and juxtaposes reality with bungling efforts to interpret it. The novel begins as playful satire of academia: the elaborately parodied magazine with its notes on contributors and their absurd careers; the small college in a raw western town, but with its erotic "personal" advertisements and other items of a counter-culture, scarcely underground. In these advertisements, as in Joyce Carol Oates's "Notes on Contributors", real people with real feelings spring to life in a very few lines. (p. 43)
The essential novelistic game is between the parodic and farcical literary stance, the playfulness and brutality of language, and a fierce western reality surrendering at last a tragic story. Form and style function, that is, in ironic juxtaposition to the material. Most real for anyone who has visited such colleges, or who has followed the darkest couloirs of MLA meetings, is the pathos of the intellectual lost in a raw environment and in a college riddled with jealousies…. Everything, everyone would seem at first glance mere comic stereotype. But the sufferings glimpsed through these screens are real.
The achievement is rhetorical not thematic: an elaborate juggling of a dozen voices, with each new voice leading us to distrust and correct the earlier ones…. The novel's genial tone modulates toward a final monologue of extreme callousness, a vision of total depravity. The impressionist game of shifting sympathy and judgment is beautifully controlled. (pp. 44-5)
The Tar Baby [is] derivative in spots and perhaps in overall inspiration, but by no means the mere pastiche of Nabokov that a New York Times reviewer claimed: a book doubtless easy to ridicule through plot summary …, its language brilliantly inventive yet sometimes breaking under strain … withal a small masterpiece…. There is not one rendered scene of present action on which we can absolutely depend; the reader must turn from mirror to mirror, attendant to shifting profiles, measuring distortion. Yet the whole is rich, comic, sardonic, meaningful. We are entertained; we believe; we care. The Tar Baby does contain that fragment of truth for which we have forgotten to ask. (pp. 47-8)
As with Faulkner, so with Charyn one discovers certain constants in book after book: the irrepressible comic impulse and the delight in playful inventive language. All in all The Tar Baby, complex as it is, reveals unsubdued the basic energies and impulses with which Charyn began, not least the impulse to tell stories and create life, as much life per page as possible. (p. 49)
Albert J. Guerard, in TriQuarterly 30 (© 1974 by Northwestern University Press), Spring, 1974.
About a New York police inspector's attempt to infiltrate a white slavery operation, "Blue Eyes" would have been only a modest study of police deals and dealings—a novel of public information—had not Charyn maintained an intensity of language that characterizes our best novels of private creation. Energized throughout with voice and gesture—the language of character—"Blue Eyes" is a fine work of imagined fact….
Because Charyn attends to … details of communication, both as subject and medium, his novel has a page to page fascination and occupies that now underpopulated land between realism and artifice.
Charyn sometimes allows detail to build eccentricity and colloquial vigor to become street jargon, but the results are more entertaining than bothersome…. Patrolmen in their "bags" (uniforms), stoolie Arnold "dirtying a car" (planting evidence), "gloms" (dumb cops) chasing "meateaters" (whiteslavers)—these do more than prove the author's been on the street. Combined with a conventionally literate diction, good pacing, and comedy of the everyday, phrases like these help return substance to a language puréed by its official users. (p. 6)
Thomas LeClair, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1975 by the New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), February 9, 1975.
Charyn, Jerome (Vol. 8)
Charyn, Jerome 1937–
American novelist, short story writer, playwright, and editor, Charyn, who typically writes in a surrealistic, comic style, is a versatile, talented writer who so far has failed to write a major novel. He writes well about the emotional misfits and the dispossesed living in urban ghettos. (See also CLC, Vol. 5, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)
Marilyn the Wild is flawed by its own rampaging vitality. A Charyn character cannot simply put on a coat: Esther Rose's "fist burrowed into her sleeve like the skull of a groundhog." Too many adversaries shrill in the same vituperative key. Even lovers snarl their sweet nothings, as if they were pouring poison into each other's ears. Yet the author endows his most grotesque characters with a certain beauty. His kinkiest people—an albino Negro pyromaniac, a senile, one-eyed dishwasher—are the imaginings of a major talent. (p. 96)
LeAnne Schreiber, "A Terrible Beauty," in Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; copyright Time Inc. 1976), April 19, 1976, pp. 94, 96.
What's to be done with this foolish thing, the father? Let him circle himself to zero, as Joseph Heller does Bob Slocum in "Something Happened." Drag him mumbling and dead to a far part of the land, as Donald Barthelme does in "The Dead Father." Orbit him out into transcendent space with Saul Bellow's Charlie Citrine of "Humboldt's Gift."
Or set him up for a double fall—a stumble as man, a bumble as myth—as Jerome Charyn does in his exciting and deceptive new novel "Marilyn the Wild." Our father is half a myth for conceiving us. We trip him so he can see he has fallen on us. "Marilyn the Wild" examines the damage with compassionate precision.
Charyn's man-myth is Isaac Sidel, a Manhattan police inspector who presided over Charyn's last novel, "Blue Eyes." Sidel is the "Moses of Clinton and Delancey," a gray knight known as "Isaac the Pure" and "Isaac the Just." He "sleeps with his notebook" and gouges the eyes of the unjust. Sidel daily battles alien crime combines, checks would-be supercops, tolerates ineffectual F.B.I. agents and confronts sleazy journalists.
It is not easy being an idea of order on the East Side, but the domestic entanglements of the mythic cop most interest Charyn and the reader…. Charyn's game is more than just revealing the official hero's private weaknesses. He shows how Sidel's absorption in his own paternal myth both causes the novel's plot and prevents Sidel from solving it equitably…. (p. 54)
The plot—as it should be—is pure convention; plenty of risks, coincidences, melodrama and ritualized scenes. This conventionality satisfies the detective reader's expectations and makes for a first-rate entertainment. More important, it reflects the mythic rules Sidel lives within. Travesty would have been easy. Instead Charyn artfully half-turns the detective from against itself to examine the paradoxes of fatherhood and authority, mythology and manhood.
"Marilyn the Wild" continues the pleasures of "Blue Eyes"—social and religious multiplicity, eccentric street people, close attention to gesture and voice, and colloquial energy…. The characters are wild; they close upon one another, bartering, demanding, consuming, berating, gouging. Myth's penetration of the everyday creates an atmosphere of force and danger. (pp. 54, 56)
After "Marilyn the Wild" sells a lot of copies, I hope the movies buy it. I'd like to see Charyn slow down (nine books in 12 years) and consolidate his considerable strengths into a major work. At present he threatens to be the American Anthony Burgess, who wrote too many partial books too quickly early in his career. Like Burgess, Charyn's novels have often exploited an eccentric subject or have been written to a convention. "Marilyn the Wild" uses its formula expertly and sensitively. Now maybe Charyn won't need it any longer. (p. 56)
Thomas LeClair, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1976 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 2, 1976.
"The Education of Patrick Silver" concludes Jerome Charyn's trilogy of novels ("Blue Eyes" and "Marilyn the Wild" are the first two) about New York cops and marginal crooks and killers who suggest an animated cartoon by a Chagall of the Ashcan School. The novels stress, among other things, a fluidity of affiliations between its cops and crooks: Patrick Silver, an ex-policeman too addicted to Guinness stout to remain useful to the force, has switched sides. He is now employed by the Guzmanns, a family of criminals headquartered in the Bronx, as bodyguard to the feebleminded 44-year-old Guzmann "baby," Jerónimo. (p. 5)
It is not clear why the novel is named for Patrick. He isn't especially central to the book. In fact it is the author—rather than any of his characters, rather than his story—who dominates. His novel is a vigorous performance, but more kinetic than dynamic, its notably fluent language a kind of novelistic blarney, lavish with hyperbolic verbs, with a nearly surreal physicality…. After a while, the color of the details starts to run. The book—the whole trilogy—has a lilt to it, but the lilt ends up cavorting solo.
This effect must be accountable in part to the smallness of the story the book has to tell; the linguistic bravura exists as if to buck up a weak plot—essentially a lot of cops and robbers running around Greenwich Village and the Bronx, Guzmanns hiding or fleeing, Sidel and his men sniffing, tailing, tackling. The story has mobility but little body.
Charyn's ripe language also reflects his book's load of exoticism. To a point, it is a strength of the novel and the trilogy that its cast of characters is so colorful—Jewish cops, a cop from Harvard, Patrick Silver an Irish Jew, the Guzmann Marranos, Spanish or Portuguese Jews originally, passing as Christians. (pp. 5, 17)
Though the stew is too spicy, and ultimately heavy, it speaks for Charyn's sophisticated sense of New York. He apparently has investigated the city's entire body, within and without, and he has written it up in Charynese. The exoticism weakens to the extent that the novel's characters are "characters." The local color, for all the authenticity one knows to be its basis, is often too pointedly garish to be convincing, and actually helps to drain the book of impact…. "The Education of Patrick Silver" is not sadism. It is certainly talented. But it is mostly plumage. (p. 17)
Richard P. Brickner, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1976 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 5, 1976.