Jerome Charyn Charyn, Jerome (Vol. 5) - Essay

Charyn, Jerome (Vol. 5)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.