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Charyn, Jerome 1937–

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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.)

Irving Malin

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 342

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 so, he subverts in a shrewd, childish and comic manner those virtues and deeds which we have applauded. He writes a revisionist fiction about FDR, politics, and the nation itself.

Charyn continually stresses the unexpected. The weather is mysterious—sudden storms darkly image the passions of statesmen and rogues—and it merely reflects unruly inner weather. Even his plot refuses to adhere to any "sane" arrangement. Why should FDR like and adopt the stupid innocent, Oliver Beebe? Why should dishonest statesmen run again and again for office? I believe that the world Charyn presents is so arbitrary—but deliberately so!—that it is, to use his title-word, "scary."

Charyn succeeds in his bracing destructiveness because of his stylistic jumps. He uses short sentences which startle us; we are shaken by their bursts of energy and juxtaposition…. The sentences are charged; the details move so swiftly and surprisingly—to use another of Charyn's favorite words—that we are unbalanced.

I think that many readers will be disturbed by The Franklin Scare because they will not see serious intentions. Its childish, superstitious, cartoon-like reading of history, however, helps us to understand the riddles and lunacies of American political life. It is a wonderfully enjoyable, instructive novel. (pp. 16-17)

Irving Malin, "Books in Brief: 'The Franklin Scare'," in The Hollins Critic (copyright 1977 by Hollins College), Vol. XIV, No. 4, October, 1977, pp. 16-17.

John Leonard

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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. It builds, out of their eccentricities and foibles and the socks they wear in their private lives, an agreeable and moving double portrait….

Everybody uses Oliver [F.D.R.'s sailor-barber] during the accident of his trafficing with momentous events, as we all are used by our politicians and our various cops. It sometimes seems that he alone in Washington is without an ulterior motive, a perfect child of the Republic. And yet their affection for him, their respect for an attraction to his blank innocence, testify to the existence of a better self submerged in them, a pre-political humanity. Oliver is a form of nostalgia.

John Leonard, "Nostalgia of the Absurd," in The New York Times (© 1977 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 19, 1977, p. 19.

Seymour Epstein

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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 pattern. But even if it did, one suspects the pattern would be no more or less fragmented than it is in "Secret Isaac."

Mr. Charyn has no "characters," in any conventional sense, working in this novel. There are names performing different aspects of frenzy—political, sexual, homicidal—but no human beings such as one might meet in a classroom, or even in a Dublin alley. But so skillful a writer as Mr. Charyn must know what he is doing. These representations must be assumed to be deliberate.

How effective, then, is such literary abstract expressionism? Paragraph by paragraph, it is very effective. The stylistic voltage throws off sparks like a torn power line. But torn power lines are notorious for terminating communication. Is "Secret Isaac" communication, or just sparks? If it's sparks, "Secret Isaac" is a veritable Fourth of July.

Seymour Epstein, "Weakness for Damaged Women," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1979 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), January 21, 1979, p. 14.

William Plummer

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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 married; he sours and becomes "the bad boy of baseball"; he gets thrown out of organized ball. The Bildungsroman becomes a Progress. It becomes, as well, something wonderful and strange.

For several books now—a quartet of New York City cop novels and a "Ragtime"-like historical fiction set in the 1930's—Mr. Charyn has been taking recognizable genres and washing them in psychoanalytic ideas. "The Seventh Babe" is a departure; it is written under the tutelage not of Freud, but of Gabriel García Márquez and the Latin American novelists.

Outlawed by the big leagues, Rags joins the Cincinnati Colored Giants, "a small country of men" that barnstorms through the South playing anyone and everyone from unauthorized major league all-star teams to redneck pick-up squads. The Giants, who are simply the best there is, travel with a witch doctor who raises ghosts and wards off weather by rubbing a magic root. They never play in certified ballparks, but carve their diamonds out of cemeteries, swamps, practically the air itself. Theirs is an elemental, perpetually pristine world, in which people do not converse so much as "sniff" and "scratch" one another.

This folk magic—akin to that of "One Hundred Years of Solitude"—provides Mr. Charyn with a new verbal resource. At one point: "Disaster struck the Giants. Locusts ate the wood off a Buick. Diamonds would freeze up and split along the baselines. Storm clouds followed the team. Bullfrogs would leap out of the mud to plague the magician and his men. Swimmy stubbed his toe, trying to avoid the frogs." This is not mere tall-talesmanship, but hyperbole that winks at itself as it goes along and ends up taking a pratfall.

For some time now García Márquez and other Latin American writers have been knocking out stateside novelists—Norman Mailer recently cited García Márquez's as the living writer he most admires. "The Seventh Babe" successfully appropriates García Márguez's peculiar flair for the comic sublime. Mr. Charyn is one of our more consistently daring and interesting writers. (pp. 12, 19)

William Plummer, "A Left-handed Third Baseman," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1979 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 6, 1979, pp. 12, 19.

Christopher Lehmann-Haupt

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 93

["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).∗

William Pritchard

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 353

[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 plenty of energy in the paragraphs and sentences. At other moments, particularly in "Eisenhower, My Eisenhower" (1971), he pulls out all the stops in favor of the hopped-up zany prose characteristic of many novels from the early 1970's, which is guaranteed to give almost any reader a headache.

"The Catfish Man" is strongest in its first block of chapters, where Mr. Charyn is on home ground….

[We] move rapidly through one tall story after another: from Jerome's father's manufacturing of teddy bears to the family's attempt, after the Korean War breaks out, at running a "whorehouse hotel." (p. 15)

It reads like a version of "Can You Top This?"… ["The Catfish Man"] tries so hard to be interesting and original, and in such a relentlessly whacky mode of invention, that everything comes to feel somewhat the same, nothing is any more surprising than anything else; while the narrative voice registers a rather limited range of feeling and expressiveness, for all its performing tricks. At the book's happy ending, Jerome, living with his wife and daughter ("two lady catfish"), sits down and writes the first sentence of "The Catfish Man"—a resolution which, like the book's other fantasies, seemed a bit on the simple side. (pp. 15, 35)

William Pritchard, "The View from Crotona Park," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1980 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 20, 1980, pp. 15, 35.

Ernest Larsen

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 604

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 way the current's flowing. I am, of course, mistaken—not least because one can't sniff the direction of current.

The knucklehead Jerome Charyn of the novel keeps kicking himself with obsessive vengeance into one cul-de-sac after another. Strung out along the waterway of his life are death-defying but dead-end bouts with YMHA weightlifting, championship Ping-Pong, New Orleans chess, American madness, a Texas prison, Chicano crime, and closet writing. His gusto in leaping from one to the next (even if a little green around the gills) may be a worthy tribute to American sticktoitiveness—but a tribute in some ways better fitted to a boy's adventure story. In fact, this Charyn, who scribbles stories about pirates and turns the life of Jefferson Davis into another Count of Monte Cristo, becomes an emblem of the failure of American manhood. The Catfish Man is another entry in our long literary tradition (which flows as far back as Natty Bumppo) of the male too mired in obsessions to develop passions, of the boy who never grows up….

[Charyn] hasn't solved the structural problem endemic to the tradition. How do you develop—or even make continuously interesting—a story based on non-development, on non-progression? And if you don't bother merely stringing episodes like beads, as Charyn I think rightly does not, how do you avoid the more serious risk—which is that each episode tends to resemble the last because boys, even if precocious 40-year-olds, will be boys? Fun at first, in the end somewhat tiring….

Sure, he means the relentless tumble of slapstick action to corral his perpetual boy's unstinting and furious purity, but he wore me down too soon. There are constant hard, short jabs. "I was crafty with my jailers." "Sunshine came to cheer me up." "I had the creeps." Maybe I get punchy too easily, but a style so speedy and so spare—I doubt if there's a sentence in the book that runs longer than three lines of print—delivers its effects much better on the short haul than in a novel. Never stretching, the novel always seems on the verge of snapping back at you.

Charyn clearly believes that the dilemma of the boy who never grew up is also the dilemma of the American writer, whose escapist story-telling is somehow incompatible with the prospect of maturity. Writing is depicted in this book as kidstuff first; then as a stroke away from madness; then, still shameful enough, as a means to keep the family in bacon. I suspect Charyn knows better. The Catfish Man deviously recycles many elements from previous Charyn novels; in a lot of it, you get the sense that if the Bronx River weren't so muddy, you'd catch him treading water.

Ernest Larsen, "Busy Boy," in The Village Voice (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice; copyright © News Group Publications, 1980), Vol. XXV, No. 16, April 21, 1980, p. 43.

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Charyn, Jerome (Vol. 5)