Sometimes I think I started this blog for Jerome Charyn. Or at any rate that he is the author who most perfectly sums up what the blog is about. I still remember the first book of his I came across - it was in one of those bargain second-hand boxes, three for 50p. I had found two I wanted and was looking for a third, and there was Marilyn the Wild. I picked it because it was short, in good condition, and was published by Bloomsbury, who had just published my novel WHOM. I loved it. My editor at Bloomsbury was a fan, too - every time he moved to a new publisher, he signed Charyn up; but, he added, he just doesn't sell.
Marilyn the Wild is part of a series Charyn has written about a New York Jewish cop called Isaac Sidel. I'll write about these in a later posting, but for now I'm going to consider one of his stand-alone novels. War Cries Over Avenue C is set in New York's Alphabet City, an area which is introduced to us in a spoof prologue supposedly written by 'Doris Quinn, Your Manhattan Spy':
Cars move slower on Avenue A. You could die whistling and might not meet a Checker cab. You've entered Indian country without even knowing it.The combination of urban realism and disconcerting playfulness is characteristic. He knows the world he's writing about so well that it's hard tell when he's exaggerating, or just plain making things up. Sarah Fishman, Saigon Sarah from her time as a nurse in Vietnam, when she wore two .45s to defend her Viet Cong patients from their interrogators, now lives in a fortified Talmud school on Avenue C with her childhood sweetheart, Howie Biedersbill, a Henry-James-loving assassin who still has bits of shrapnel in his scalp from his own Vietnam years. They manage to survive in a world of CIA agents, Bolivian drug-runners and KGB men who use Mont Blanc fountain pens as a weapon. Howie's arch-enemy Capablanca holds him upside down out of a window to force him to admit that Gabriel Garcia Marquez (El Nobel) is a greater writer than Henry James. The Vietnam that provides the backstory to this saga of a crazed New York is just as surreal: Howie has lived among the Montagnards of the Central Highlands in a tribe of sorcerers and magicians:
They took their hammocks, their chicken claws, their poison tubs, tobacco, salt pots, arrows, antidotes, jewels and silver pipes, opium balls they'd fashioned from their last Cambodian brick and ate like cotton candy, a mound of plastique that Judith kept in a rag, jungle knives, French cigarettes that the matriarchs liked to smoke when their mouths grew sore from silver pipes, cutlery to prepare food for the devils, children's toys, French panties from Saigon for the teenage girls, a medicine chest of roots, barks and herbs, white cotton leggings that the women sometimes wore, a clutch of high-heeled shoes, the spirit table and the spirit chair.[Judith, by the way, is a man who uses a woman's name for magical reasons.]
A touch of El Nobel in that passage, perhaps? Such a long sentence is rare in Charyn's work - he usually writes in the tersest of hard-boiled prose. But even in the most thriller-like passages of War Cries, there is still the sense, as there is in the work of that other New York Jew William Tenn, of the magic that automatically occurs when tribes who are totally alien to each other are suddenly thrust into proximity. Tenn's Venusians are no stranger than Charyn's Montagnards.
Charyn spent many years teaching in Paris, and still has a home there. Honoured with the rank of Commandeur des Arts et des Lettres, he is not the first American writer to be more appreciated in France than his native land. (There is another example on my list of subjects for future blog entries.) The author of thirty novels, he is still writing at 74, and his most recent publication, The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson, sounds like one of his most daring projects. Other books chronicle his interests in film, table tennis, baseball, the Wild West, and, of course, the history of New York. And, as with William Tenn, Robert Irwin, H.F.M Prescott and so many other authors I intend to cover on White Threshold, hardly anyone I know seems to have heard of him.
Next time, a major British mid-20th-century novelist who seems at long last to be on the verge of achieving the reputation he deserves.