Feb/Mar 2008

The Bronx—much thonks

Jerome Charyn talks with Bookforum

Kera Bolonik


"I am frightened of everything except for writing," Jerome Charyn admits during our afternoon kaffeeklatsch in his West Village apartment in December. He's just returned from a semester in Paris, where he spends half the year teaching film theory at the American University. At seventy, his elegant one-bedroom is furnished with piles of books, which makes sense for an award-winning, prolific author of fiction and nonfiction, as well as of film scripts and plays. But Charyn, born and raised in working-class neighborhoods in the Bronx during the '40s, owned only a stack of comic books and a single volume of an encyclopedia set until he enrolled at Columbia College. So perhaps it isn't so surprising that he, a master of the picaresque best known for his genre-bending series about New York City detective Isaac Sidel (Blue Eyes [1975], Marilyn the Wild [1976], and The Good Policeman [1990], to name a few, inspired in part by his homicide-detective brother, Harvey) and his trilogy of memoirs about growing up in the Bronx, has built his illustrious career on the very things that shaped his literary imagination: a lifetime of movie-going, comic books, New York City, the thugs of his youth, and, eventually, the great literature he discovered in college. His new novel, Johnny One-Eye: A Tale of the American Revolution (Norton), is a breathless and poignant tour de force narrated by the fast-talking, one-eyed double agent John Stocking, whose mother runs one of the city's most notorious brothels, and whose mystery father may be George Washington. He described the inspiration that can be drawn from our most disturbing fantasies, the open-ended nature of storytelling, and the way in which fiction can act as a corrective to the history we've been taught. — KERA BOLONIK

Jerome Charyn, New York City, 2007.

BOOKFORUM: You don't usually write historical fiction. What moved you to write this novel?

JEROME CHARYN: For whatever reason, the Revolutionary War has always spoken to me. I grew up with this image of George Washington as a very tall, brooding man who had no language, and I had no language as a child. Living in the Bronx, I had no idea there was such a newspaper as the New York Times, for example. You just had the Daily News, the Daily Mirror, and the Bronx Home News. I felt particularly moved by Washington.

BF: And you portray him as crafty, bold, larger-than-life––hardly the dour, silent man from history books.

JC: Fiction often has a greater truth than most historical texts. I think of Napoleon, and I read War and Peace to get a sense of that particular time. Novelists see history as a story. We're not burdened by "inaccuracies." It doesn't make any difference to me whether Washington had a wartime love. It seemed perfectly natural that I give him one, considering the kind of power that he had as a man. I wasn't trying to be devilish.

BF: But why bestow Washington with a madam and her bastard son?

JC: I wanted to expand his sympathy, his range of feeling. I was thinking of Johnny One-Eye as myself. As a child, I was wishing that I was an orphan, that my father wasn't my father. As horribly cruel as it is to say that, cruelty is sometimes your strongest weapon. Imagining George Washington as your father, that you are the bastard child of this extraordinary man, empowered me in writing it. I could find all the juice—the hostility, the anger—that was necessary to keep the story alive.

BF: What appeals to you about the picaresque, and specifically the rogues who frequently narrate your fiction?

JC: The openness of the form. In Johnny One-Eye, it allows you to give the sweep of the entire Revolution. If I wrote this novel in the third person, I don't think you'd feel the same intimacy if it were told by an omniscient narrator. I don't think it would be as powerful. That first confrontation between Washington and Johnny really defines the entire book, because it shows how Washington is just as duplicitous with Johnny as Johnny is with Washington. Washington knows who he is without revealing it. "Nice," happy people aren't very good narrators.

BF: What is it about New York that compels so many writers?

JC: In the '30s, the Works Progress Administration had people like John Cheever and Ralph Ellison writing their guides to New York. I always remember one thing [from one of those guides], and I can only paraphrase it: New York was both your educator and your executioner. Even today, the city has relentless energy. When John Adams visited New York in the eighteenth century, he said people speak so quickly here, you can barely follow them. So that kind of energy was always there from the very beginning.

BF: What's it like these days to be a New Yorker in Paris?

JC: I'm privileged because I am a writer and a professor of cinema and live in a nice section of Paris—Montparnasse. But I don't interact with the culture. And I've resisted learning French, even though I can understand it in a kindergarten way. I don't want to speak it, and I don't want to think in it, because it really hurts the rhythm [of my native speech], even though French words creep into your vocabulary. I don't want my music interfered with.

BF: You've said in earlier interviews that you grew up in a household with no books— that you feasted instead on movies and comic books.

JC: I didn't read until very late, and then I began reading poetry much earlier than fiction. I remained for a long time very loyal to poetry, even though I never saw myself as a poet except for writing a few love poems. I am now reading the letters of Emily Dickinson, and each is a kind of seduction. The writing of poems to someone we love is, of course, also a seduction. I am fascinated by her writing and the kind of power she had. Where it came from, I don't think we'll ever know. When I was growing up, we didn't have a dictionary in our home. All we had was an encyclopedia, and then we only had volume A, so I knew only about things that began with the letter a.

BF: How has reading comics and moviegoing shaped your literary sensibility?

JC: First of all, when you're going to the movies at the age of five, you don't really understand what they're saying, but it leaves such a visual imprint. It's going to sound very strange, but I can be walking on the street and see the back of someone's head and recognize them from a movie. You have a visual sophistication. I think with the comic book, it was a way for me to learn how to read. I've written some graphic novels. I like the form. The Isaac Sidel books are now being turned into graphic novels in France. But I feel frustrated because I am not the artist and can't control the image. The real creator of the graphic novel is the artist. I actually started out as an artist, but I had no talent whatsoever.

BF: You've written in nearly every medium, including screenplays and teleplays.

JC: Yes. For six months, I was Otto Preminger's court jester [laughs]. At that point, he'd lost all his power. He had a wonderful penthouse in the Paramount Building, and he was looking for someone to write a teleplay on the Supreme Court. I think he hired me because, when I met him, he insulted me and I started to laugh and he liked that.

BF: Had he read your novels?

JC: No, I think somebody had recommended me. At the time, I was living with one woman and in love with another, and he got all involved with this. He said, "We have to take them to dinner, separately." So we worked on this project, which was terrible. And I was being paid an exorbitant amount of money for that time, fifteen hundred dollars a week, which seemed like an enormous figure. This was in the '60s or early '70s. I said to him, "Otto, I'm not getting my own work done. Why don't I work one day for you for free? Just one day for free and then you let me go?" He was intrigued by that, that somebody would work one day for free. I worked one day and then I quit because I could have worked there forever. Television and movies are a director's medium. It has nothing to do with you. You're just writing the skeleton. I've also worked in the theater, and I like to write plays, but it's very hard to get them produced. I was at the Actor's Studio for a long time and worked with Arthur Penn, Elia Kazan, and Norman Mailer. One day, you're writing a play, and the next day, Al Pacino is acting in it—I loved it.

BF: I am thinking about the "Baby" Charyn we see in Bronx Boy, a soda jerk reading stacks of Krazy Kat comics. How could that kid have ever imagined he'd grow up to be a prolific American writer living in Paris, writing about nearly everything he loves, from Ping-Pong to cinema to comic books?

JC: [Laughs] Yes, but there's always the potential of what you could've done or might've done and the sadness of things that you will not be able to do. You don't know when the music will come or leave you. Sometimes it leaves you for a long time. I couldn't write at all. Now, for whatever reason, that music is back, and I can get into a voice—now I'm getting into the voice of Emily Dickinson. Life is a picaresque novel.

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