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Jerome Charyn Biography

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Nationality: American. Born: New York City, 1937. Education: Columbia University, New York, B.A. (cum laude) 1959 (Phi Beta Kappa). Career: Recreation leader, New York City Department of Parks, early 1960s; English teacher, High School of Music and Art, and School of Performing Arts, both New York, 1962-64; Lecturer in English, City College, New York, 1965; assistant professor of English, Stanford University, California, 1965-68; assistant professor, 1968-72, associate professor, 1972-78, and professor of English, 1978-80, Herbert Lehman College, City University of New York; Mellon Visiting Professor of English, Rice University, Houston, 1979; visiting professor, 1980, and lecturer in creative writing, 1981-86, Princeton University, New Jersey; Visiting Distinguished Professor of English, City College of New York, 1988-89. Founding editor, Dutton Review, New York, 1970-72; executive editor, Fiction, New York, 1970-75. Member of the Executive Board, PEN American Center, since 1984, International Association of Crime Writers, since 1988, and Mystery Writers of America, since 1989. Since 1986 member of Playwright/Director Unit, Actors Studio, New York. Awards: National Endowment for the Arts grant, 1979, 1984; Rosenthal Foundation award, 1981; Guggenheim grant, 1982. Chevalier, Order of Arts and Letters (France), 1989. Agent: Georges Borchardt Inc., 136 East 57th Street, New York, New York 10022, U.S.A.; or, Mic Cheetham, Anthony Sheil Associates, 43 Doughty Street, London WC1N 2LF, England.

PUBLICATIONS

Novels

Once Upon a Droshky. New York, McGraw Hill, 1964.

On the Darkening Green. New York, McGraw Hill, 1965.

Going to Jerusalem. New York, Viking Press, 1967; London, Cape, 1968.

American Scrapbook. New York, Viking Press, 1969.

Eisenhower, My Eisenhower. New York, Holt Rinehart, 1971.

The Tar Baby. New York, Holt Rinehart, 1973.

The Isaac Quartet. London, Zomba, 1984.

Blue Eyes. New York, Simon and Schuster, 1975.

Marilyn the Wild. New York, Arbor House, 1976; London, Bloomsbury, 1990.

The Education of Patrick Silver. New York, Arbor House, 1976.

Secret Isaac. New York, Arbor House, 1978.

The Franklin Scare. New York, Arbor House, 1977.

The Seventh Babe. New York, Arbor House, 1979.

The Catfish Man: A Conjured Life. New York, Arbor House, 1980.

Darlin' Bill: A Love Story of the Wild West. New York, Arbor House, 1980.

Panna Maria. New York, Arbor House, 1982.

Pinocchio's Nose. New York, Arbor House, 1983.

War Cries over Avenue C. New York, Fine, 1985; London, Abacus, 1986.

The Magician's Wife. Tournai, Belgium, Casterman, 1986; NewYork, Catalan, 1987; London, Titan, 1988.

Paradise Man. New York, Fine, 1987; London, Joseph, 1988.

The Good Policeman. New York, Mysterious Press, 1990; London, Bloomsbury, 1991.

Elsinore. New York, Mysterious Press, and London, Bloomsbury, 1991.

Maria's Girls. New York, Mysterious Press, 1992; London, Serpent'sTail, 1994.

Montezuma's Man. New York, Mysterious Press, 1993.

Little Angel Street. New York, Mysterious Press, 1994.

El Bronx. New York, Mysterious Press, 1997.

Death of a Tango King. New York, New York University Press, 1998.

Citizen Sidel. New York, Mysterious Press, 1999.

Captain Kidd. New York, St. Martin's Press, 1999.

Short Stories

The Man Who Grew Younger and Other Stories. New York, Harper, 1967.

Family Man, art by Joe Staton, lettering by Ken Bruzenak. New York, Paradox Press, 1995.

Uncollected Short Stories

"The Blue Book of Crime," in The New Black Mask. San Diego, California, Harcourt Brace, 1986.

"Fantomas in New York," in A Matter of Crime. San Diego, California, Harcourt Brace, 1988.

"Young Isaac," in The Armchair Detective (New York), Summer1990.

Other

Metropolis: New York as Myth, Marketplace, and Magical Land. New York, Putnam, 1986; London, Abacus, 1988.

Movieland: Hollywood and the Great American Dream Culture. NewYork, Putnam, 1989.

The Dark Lady from Belorusse: A Memoir. New York, St. Martin'sPress, 1997.

The Black Swan: A Memoir. St. Martin's Press, 2000.

Editor, The Single Voice: An Anthology of Contemporary Fiction. New York, Collier, 1969.

Editor, The Troubled Vision: An Anthology of Contemporary Short Novels and Passages. New York, Collier, 1970.

Editor, The New Mystery. New York, Dutton, 1993.

*

Manuscript Collection:

Fales Collection, Elmer Holmes Bobst Library, New York University.

Critical Studies:

Introductions by Charyn to The Single Voice, 1969, and The Troubled Vision, 1970; "Notes on the Rhetoric of Anti-Realist Fiction" by Albert Guerard, in Tri-Quarterly (Evanston, Illinois), Spring 1974; "Jerome Charyn: Artist as Mytholept" by Robert L. Patten, in Novel (Providence, Rhode Island), Fall 1984; "Exploding the Genre: The Crime Fiction of Jerome Charyn" by Michael Woolf, in American Crime Fiction, London, Macmillan, 1988; Jerome Charyn issue of The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Summer 1992.

* * *

Jerome Charyn's work demonstrates a deep mistrust of the contemporary world, expressed frequently in alienation from mechanized or anti-humanistic institutions. At the same time, and in opposition to this perception, Charyn has celebrated humanity's heroic capacity for survival in the face of such alienation. A typical Charyn protagonist moves between worlds, between a landscape of urban decline and worlds of spiritual intensity and complexity where the capacity for magic and mayhem confronts the mundane and the menacing. Throughout his work he has imagined and re-imagined America (most commonly New York City) into forms that repeatedly challenge and subvert the reader's perception of contemporary reality. A dark comedy meets fragments of spiritual persistence that finally affirm the fragile survival of flawed but beautiful humanity in the rubble of our civilization. The fiction is formed and informed both by an awareness of contemporary literary practice and by a moral consciousness deeply influenced by Jewish experience and perception. Of all the novelists characterized as Jewish-American, Charyn is the most radical and inventive. There is in the body of his work a restless creativity which constantly surprises and repeatedly undermines the reader's expectation.

His first novel, Once Upon a Droshky, explored a recurrent conflict in Jewish-American writing, that between father and son. The narrative voice, however, is that of the father and the language is in an English that is shaped by Yiddish speech structures. This creates a powerful comic narrative but it also reveals a sense of continuity with, and nostalgia for, the lost world of Yiddish-American culture. The father reflects a sense of moral justice while the son represents a legalistic, inhumane America. He embodies a future against which the voices of the past have little power except that accrued by spiritual strength and the sense that reality is ambiguous, containing both the known and the transcendent. It is characteristic of Charyn's originality that his first novel, published when he was 26, should be told through the perception of the father.

The world as this kind of ambiguous landscape places Charyn's work, in one context, in relation to Isaac Bashevis Singer's. In one of Charyn's most important novels, War Cries over Avenue C, for example, he goes into the innermost heart of the desolate inner city to invent a world of heroes and grotesques, angels and demons. Avenue C is a world without God. The novel is not, though, a grim record of urban decline. A Jewish girl with bad skin becomes magically transformed into a mythic and heroic figure, Saigon Sarah, while her lover returns from Vietnam as "The Magician" picking shrapnel, like dandruff, from his skull. Vietnam is carried like a drug into the twisted heart of New York. Charyn is not, though, solely representing the familiar issues of violence and degeneration in the city but a complex synthesis of moral collapse and spirituality, degradation and salvation.

Charyn's prose precisely reflects his themes. It makes startling conjunctions, dramatically synthesizes the magical and the mundane. He thrusts the reader out of the known world and then back into it with a radically altered perception. The experience is comic, violent, and profoundly serious.

Another aspect of Charyn's writing is his awareness of contemporary literary issues; he is an editor and critic of considerable sophistication. His knowledge of this field is shown in his use of the notions of fictionality and fable-making that characterizes, in part, post-realist and postmodern writing. This aspect of his work is most clearly illustrated in the novels of the early 1970s: Eisenhower, My Eisenhower and The Tar Baby. In the first novel he creates a fictional gypsy tribe of Azazians who are essentially comic figures with tails and a belief in an anarchic God. The novel is told in the first person by an Azazian gypsy, and Charyn's achievement is to use that comic voice to record a tragic history. The voice reveals a condition of persecution that transforms the fable of Azazian history into one that reflects all histories of ethnic alienation and persecution. Non-realism paradoxically offers an incisive analysis into the real predicament of the ethnic stranger. A similar strategy is found in The Tar Baby. The novel is a parody of a literary periodical which ostensibly honors the life of one Anatole Waxman-Weissman. The form gives Charyn the opportunity to create a succession of literary jokes reminiscent of Nabokov's Pale Fire, but the formal issues co-exist with a sense of Anatole as an archetypal ethnic outsider in a society and institution hostile to the creative imagination.

Charyn's view of his own creativity is of a process that comes close to mystical experience in its transfer between real and quasi-surreal worlds: "I start out each time to write a conventional story. All of a sudden, the story begins to shift. It's like a landslide—you're on one particular spot, and all of a sudden that spot disappears and you enter some other sort of crazy territory." These territories are rich indeed and they encompass many forms, from the Western landscape of Darlin' Bill to the immigrant history of America that informs Panna Maria. Of particular interest are two novels of quasi-mythical autobiography: The Catfish Man and Pinocchio's Nose. These frequently exuberant fables offer a kind of alternative history of Jewish America. This history counters the view of the Jews as an invariably upwardly mobile and successful immigrant group. Like the Azazians, Charyn's Jews remain on the edges of the world, occupying a territory that shifts and slides between alienation and magic. Charyn's Jews are in America but not always of it: a tribe apart.

Tribalism is, in fact, the mode in which he most frequently represents ethnicity. This is most clearly apparent in the crime novels that come close to offering an urban epic of major literary importance: The Isaac Quartet and The Good Policeman. In these five novels Charyn represents New York as a kind of tribal society populated by warring ethnic communities. The groups are intertwined in a system that blurs boundaries between good and evil, detective and criminal. In essence, the author uses the crime genre to complicate the nature of reality. He reverses a common objective of the form which frequently depends on a clear division between right and wrong, good and bad.

A writer of almost staggering energy, Charyn during the late 1990s seemingly turned out books as fast as his readers could read them. El Bronx, the ninth volume featuring New York mayor Isaac Sidel, is as much concerned with its preteen characters as with the fiftysomething mayor. Charyn followed this with a memoir about his mother, The Dark Lady from Belorusse, and a less successful work of fiction, Death of a Tango King. The latter, his 28th novel, was not part of the Sidel series, but with Citizen Sidel the writer returned full-force to his inimitable mayor. The book was a rollicking joyride, but the sprawling plot of Captain Kidd—ranging as it did from the invasion of Italy under Patton's Third Army to the internecine wars of dry-goods merchants in wartime Manhattan—proved confusing to some readers. The Black Swan, a sequel to the earlier memoir, recounts Charyn's childhood obsession with the movies.

Charyn's view of the world is inclusive and complex. He grafts onto the form of the detective novel a set of strategies which permit those mystical transformations that are characteristic of a view of reality in which nothing stays simple or still. He is not essentially concerned with the mechanics of crime but he exploits the genre to approach the profoundest of paradoxes: the persistence of love and redemption in an ostensibly doomed and damned world. Within the violent disorder of contemporary experience, Charyn perceives the heroic nature of flawed humanity as it crawls towards some bizarre version of spiritual salvation.

Charyn is one of a handful of living American novelists who combine prolific output with stylistic originality and imaginative zest. Part of his claim to our attention is his unpredictability. He has taken hold of a vast range of American myths, locations, and dreams and reshaped these within his rich imagination. He melds that creativity with the fertile tradition of Jewish storytelling which traditionally envisages a spiritual potential within a mire of poverty and violence. The outcome is a deeply serious and profound vision of a world simultaneously half-catatonic at the edge of doom and heroically groping towards some version of God's grace.

—Michael Woolf

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