The Shadows Know

Bob Jewett
Jerome Charyn, New York City, late 1970s

In his long, exceptionally prolific career, encompassing over fifty titles in fifty years, Jerome Charyn has attracted the warm respect of critics and fellow writers, if not a mass public following. Walking a tightrope between high literary sophistication and pop culture (his first two loves were comic books and movies), he has managed to elicit comparisons to all the B’s: Bellow, Babel, Borges, and Balzac. His debut novel, Once Upon a Droshky (1964), a comic romp involving Yiddish stage veterans on Second Avenue, was followed by works exhibiting remarkable range in almost every genre: crime novels featuring his memorable police inspector Isaac Sidel, film criticism, memoirs, urban meditations, travel, a lively romance set in Stalinist Russia (The Green Lantern), biographical studies (Joe DiMaggio, Isaac Babel, Marilyn Monroe), graphic novels, and historical fiction (including, most recently, first-person novels in the voices of Abraham Lincoln and Emily Dickinson). For all that restless shape-shifting, there are certain constants in Charyn’s work: an energetic, urbane prose, a playful approach to narrative, a fascination with history, and a downbeat, noirish perspective. This fatalistic outlook coexists comfortably with the ebullient verve and propulsion of his prose.

The Bronx, where the author grew up, has been a recurrent, almost a talismanic object of scrutiny for him. The exodus from the outer boroughs to Manhattan is, as Norman Podhoretz famously put it, “one of the longest journeys in the world.” The story of that transit has been told as well by Alfred Kazin, Norman Mailer, Jay Neugeboren, Vivian Gornick, Kate Simon, and a score of others. In Charyn’s case, the mode of escaping the Bronx was via Manhattan’s High School of Music and Art, followed by Columbia University, and much globetrotting thereafter, spending many years in Paris, and ending up in Manhattan, where he currently resides. His relationship with the Bronx has consequently been largely one of memory.

In an author’s note to his current book, Bitter Bronx: Thirteen Stories, he writes eloquently of that relationship:

For a long time I couldn’t go back to the Bronx. It felt like a shriek inside my skull, or a wound that had been stitched over by some insane surgeon, and I didn’t dare undo any of the stitches. It was the land of deprivation, a world without books or libraries and museums, where fathers trundled home from some cheese counter or shoe factory where they worked, with a monumental sadness sitting on their shoulders, where mothers counted every nickel at the butcher shop, bargaining with such deep scorn on their faces that their mouths were like ribbons of raw blood, while their children, girls and boys, were instruments of disorder, stealing, biting, bullying whoever they could and whimpering when they had the least little scratch.

Eventually, however, it struck him that “I’d been like an amnesiac during my self-banishment…

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