Jerome Charyn, The Half-Wild Novelist
Jerome Charyn lives in a well-preserved pocket of old New York. Within a block of his home on West 12th Street, near where the grid’s order gives way to angled avenues, is a park that dates back to the early 19th century; a grubby magazine stand; a handful of bodegas; a regularly-location-scouted luncheonette as seen on “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel;” and, yes, some lamentable trendy brunch spots and a one-time Michelin-starred gastropub.
It fits. For 55 years, Charyn, 81, has written extensively about the city’s past. That is, when he hasn’t been making excursions to Mussolini’s Italy (1982’s “Pinocchio’s Nose”), or dashing through the Russian steppes alongside Isaac Babel (2005’s “Savage Shorthand: The Life and Death of Isaac Babel”). Few novelists are as productive and omnivorous in subject matter. While he’s cultivated a reputation in the States as a “writer’s writer” beloved of Michael Chabon and admired by Don DeLillo, Charyn’s PEN/Faulkner-nominated and Rosenthal Award-winning oeuvre has left a bigger cultural crater in France, where readers remain enthralled by literary experiments and the detective genre he often operates within.
Compared not infrequently to Balzac — that over-caffeinated Gaul known for his prodigious output — Charyn’s 50-plus books include a treatise on Tarantino, three memoirs, a biography of Joe DiMaggio, nine graphic novels, an ode to the sport of table tennis and 12 crime novels featuring Isaac Sidel: the glock-toting, tapeworm-afflicted police commissioner turned mayor of New York turned vice president turned president of the United States.
In his latest, “The Perilous Adventures of the Cowboy King: A Novel of Teddy Roosevelt and His Times,” Charyn channels the “dee-lighted” voice of the only man in American history whose resume competes with Sidel’s. With ”Cowboy King,” Charyn has novelized the lives of three-quarters of Mount Rushmore — only Jefferson remains, though, first, we’re more likely to see a novel about Forward Editor Abraham Cahan, J.D. Salinger (another Jerome) or Orson Welles and Louise Brooks.
“He’s very much a man with the idée fixe. He gets on to something and obsesses till it turns into something much larger than that,” said Jay Neugeboren, a novelist and friend who met Charyn in 1955 when they were on the freshmen wrestling team at Columbia. “He’s fascinated with people that represent a portion of history for him — Roosevelt, DiMaggio, Marilyn Monroe.”
Entering his 10th floor, one-bedroom apartment, one immediately encounters Charyn’s historical obsessions. Near the door are bookcases stuffed with biographies and a History Channel video on Lincoln (source material for 2014’s “I Am Abraham: A Novel of Lincoln and the Civil War”).
To one side of his fireplace is a framed photograph of Marilyn Monroe (the subject of his 2008 biography with pictures, “Marilyn: The Last Goddess”). On a chair is a book of Basquiat prints. On the floor is Mike Wallace’s “Greater Gotham.” (In 1986, Charyn wrote “Metropolis: New York as Myth, Marketplace and Magical Land” and in 2003 he revisited the city’s history with “Gangsters & Gold Diggers: Old New York, the Jazz Age, and the Birth of Broadway.”) Books have taken over where numerous cat scratch posts have yet to stake their claim.
Charyn sits amid the clutter at a clear desk space, drinking a “smoky tea” from China. He’s unassuming, with a slight, delicate frame and an enviable-for-his-age-bracket head of silver hair. His lone ornament in a uniform of corduroy, flannel and dark fleece is a cream bandana knotted at his neck. It’s a feature Teddy Roosevelt, our most flamboyant president, might appreciate.
“He’s been caricatured,” Charyn said of Roosevelt, whom he believes to be the first modern commander in chief. “I think he was foolish in a way, but he was a great president. Look at what he did, what he accomplished. Always with his father’s picture on the wall. What would his father do?”
The benevolence of Theodore Roosevelt Sr., aka Brave Heart, was Charyn’s way into Teddy Roosevelt’s antique New York — a world chockablock with lamplighters, Tammany Hall backbiters and Dutch patricians.
“His father was a wealthy man and helped start the Museum of Natural History,” Charyn said. “But he was more interested in the poor. He founded the Home for Newsboys, and what moved me the most is that he would have dinner with them every Sunday night dressed in tails. He was probably the only one who recognized these newsies as being human.”
Charyn keeps his parents’ picture in a far corner of the living room behind a lamp, near an alcove with more bookshelves. The black-and-white image of the couple, taken in their later years, has a duplicate on display at Ellis Island, where both passed through in the 1920s. His father, Sam, wears a kippah; he started wearing one as he got older and more religious.
Bronx-born, Charyn grew up during World War II one block east of Grand Concourse in what he once described as a “deluxe tenement.” His boyhood, reimagined in his “Bronx Trilogy,” wherein he becomes a protégé of the “Mob’s Accountant,” Meyer Lansky, was filled with rough and tumble “gangster” Jews.
In a review for the New York Times, John Irving hailed “The Dark Lady From Belorusse” (1997), the first entry in Charyn’s triptych of memoirs, as “a terrific little book” that “brilliantly captured” dirty deals in the black-market Bronx. But however evocative, Charyn’s autobiographical sketches are not to be taken as purely nonfiction. Though many critics, Irving included, may mistake them for strictly the facts, the books play loose and elusive with Charyn’s literal past and, in so doing, present a key to his philosophy of historical fiction.
The landscape of Charyn’s historical novels, like almost all his picaresque offerings, is brimming with folkloric figures: Pinkerton agents, roving stranglers, bicycle police and gangs who mutilate their bodies with weaponized spikes. His George Washington (in 2008’s “Johnny One-Eye: A Tale of the American Revolution”) is in love with a brothel madam. His Emily Dickinson (2010’s “The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson”) has an affair with a tattooed handyman. His Roosevelt befriends an imagined female bunco artist turned journalist named Nancy Fowler.
“He believes in the infinite powers of fiction and doesn’t care as much about reality,” Sophie Vallas, a professor of American Literature at the Aix-Marseille University and editor of the collection “Conversations with Jerome Charyn,” told the Forward. Vallas contends that Charyn’s own history, severed at Ellis Island, inspired him to craft his own past.
Charyn’s earliest book, 1964’s “Once Upon a Droshky,” follows a Second Avenue Yiddish actor whose viability has lapsed with the times. The 1971 novel “Eisenhower, My Eisenhower” is the text in which Charyn says he found his voice. In it, he presents a New York crammed with a scapegoated gypsy minority at war with “Anglos,” the WASP elite. The gypsies have tails and maintain a base from inside a garbage truck. Both books are deeply autobiographical when read as first-generation narratives, with outsider characters that serve as a bridge between his semi-assimilated world and that of his Yiddish-speaking parents.
“I had a terrible relationship with my father,” Charyn recalled of Sam Charyn, a furrier from Poland who was often out of work. “How did he possibly understand me? There was no way that he could enter my world. So we were antagonists. I remember saying as a kid ‘one day I’m going to be tall enough that he’s not going to be able to hit me again.’” The day did come, Charyn said, but they were never on great terms.
Charyn credits surviving his boyhood to his older brother, Harvey, a tough kid and precocious lady’s man. Harvey, who died in 2015, would become a homicide detective and the basis for Manfred Coen, the protagonist of the first Isaac Sidel novel, 1975’s ”Blue Eyes.”
“He saved my life, really. He loved me. Why should he have? I took his place in a way as the so-called baby and yet he didn’t resent me,” Charyn said. “That love saved my life. I’m sure I would have been in an insane asylum without it.”
Charyn’s mother, Fannie Charyn, née Paley, was a beauty from Russia “much too intelligent for the world she lived in.” Concerned with appearances, she staged Charyn’s bar mitzvah, having him pose in a tallit for photographs to show his grandparents. When he got married in the 1960s — it didn’t work out — his mother skipped the wedding and took phony wedding photos with him and the bride after the fact.
“Parents should make you stronger not weaker,” Charyn, who is childless, reflected. “They should give you their strength. With me it was the reverse. I inherited their weaknesses but I still had my imagination. I took that and I found meanings to make that into something.”
Charyn’s early education came from comic books, the Loew’s Paradise cinema and radio serials — he tuned into them every night at 8, and they gave him the “music of language” he often invokes in literary discussion. The first novel he remembers reading was “The Sun Also Rises” which he picked up shortly before college.
He only became a voracious reader after he started Columbia’s Great Books program. After graduating, he returned to the High School of Performing Arts, where he had been a “talentless” painting student, to teach English.
“When I first started writing I lived in one room and I paid $50 a month and I didn’t feel deprived,” Charyn said. “I had to learn how to write; and I could have lived there for my entire life.”
He left the job before the apartment. But while he was teaching, Charyn published his first story, “Faigele the Idiotke,“ a Yidishlekh short, in 1963 in Norman Podhoretz’s Commentary. (Charyn believes his Columbia connection, shared with Podhoretz, helped him reach print.)
The story led to some offers. “I invariably chose the best letter but the least distinguished publisher,” Charyn said. “From then on you’re a vagabond.”
In the middle of January, Charyn made a trip to “Politics and Prose,” a bookstore in Washington, D.C. to give a reading of “The Cowboy King.” The journey to the capital coincided with a nasty snowstorm. Attendance was affected.
“What he was upset about was not so much that he didn’t get a big crowd,” Jay Neugeboren said, “but that he lost three days from writing because he had been away: That’s Jerry.”
Charyn’s friends and admirers note his tendency to downplay his achievements. You learn from them about his academic record, his tournament-level ability in Ping-Pong and his status as “A Major American Writer,” a phrase echoed by Chabon. Critics have long trumpeted the painstaking but airy rhythm of his sentences and marveled at his ability to reproduce the narrative voice of any era he chooses to emulate. Reviews of Charyn’s work often remark on his audacious imagination: one that placed Isaac Sidel in the White House with a handgun, transforming the presidency into an open-carry office.
While the Chicago Sun-Times has compared style to Raymond Chandler, calling him a “Jewish Philip Marlowe,” Charyn is more inclined to talk about his fear of the world, his apprehension about manners, his confusion about place settings at restaurants.
“I don’t know how to function in this world,” he said.
Neugeboren, who gets together regularly with Charyn to watch basketball (Charyn doesn’t follow a team per se, just loves LeBron), thinks he’s more “shrewd about sociability” than he might admit to.
Charyn’s friend, the novelist Herbert Gold, author of “The Optimist” (1959) and “Swiftie the Magician” (1974), remembers a time when he seemed befuddled by etiquette. Gold had just returned from a travel-writing trip to Senegal and paid Charyn a visit.
“I obviously had a serious stomach infection and I walked out of his bathroom. He was there and I fell to the floor and he stood over my body,” Gold laughed. “And he didn’t know what to do. He knows what to do with prose, but he didn’t know what to do with his friend who was lying, suffering on the floor. He said ‘can I get you an aspirin?’”
Charyn was, and remains somewhat confused about what makes his own books “work” as literature and commercial endeavors. When speaking of writers he admires — John Hawkes (whom he worked with at Stanford in the ‘70s) and Grace Paley — he returns to a theme of how genius can fritter away in old age with increasingly uninspired books.
“Maybe it’s better to be more isolated because then what you have is simply your own. It doesn’t belong to anyone else,” Charyn said of the conditions for writing well — conditions that, for him, are largely solitary. “Could I have lived my life in a different way? Probably. Would I have been more successful? But then, how do you define success? Do you wish you could have written better books? Yeah. Do you wish you could have done more? You’re still working. I don’t know what I could have done.”
When Charyn is called prolific, he waves the suggestion away. To write a page a day is enough to have a novel in 300 days, he says. In the 1980s, he found moments to write on the train over from a teaching job at Princeton. Sometimes chronic depression, a family legacy, grips him and he can’t write at all.
Charyn purports to have no interests but the written word, Ping-Pong and the films he ends his writing days with (“Pulp Fiction” is a favorite and he loved “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” and “Three Identical Strangers”). Writing, for him, is a craft like shoemaking, never mastered, always in search of the perfect “shoe,” or, to break the analogy, “sentence.” Often a critical darling, seldom a bestseller, he doesn’t measure success in sales.
That’s not to say he’s always ignored the market. In the mid-1970s he decided to write a crime novel on the hopes that it would sell better than his previous books. To help with the process he shadowed Harvey, learning the terse lingo of the police. He’d later attend John Gotti’s trial with his brother, who specialized in the mob.
The gambit worked when “Blue Eyes” was translated and published by the Serie Noire, a major French crime imprint that republishes the work of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler.
“Three months later someone came from Paris,” Charyn said. “He was involved with a newspaper called Libération. He said he wanted to interview me. And I said ‘interview me for what?’ He said, ‘everyone is reading your books!’”
Beginning in 1988 Charyn lived part time in Paris in the 14th arrondissement. He became a part of French culture. Soon he was writing for Libération and Charlie Hebdo. His profile built from there until, in 2002, he was named a Commander of Arts and Letters by the French minister of culture.
Vallas said that Charyn’s bold take on detective fiction (he prefers to call his Sidel novels by the French term “Polars,” a word for subversive works in the genre that has no equivalent in English) click with the French. They like how he eschews narrative, spurning the rote procedural model in favor of moral ambiguity, character study and madcap plot developments involving giant Irishmen and Peruvian pimps. He’s also become an important American voice on that side of the Atlantic with his books on New York.
Charyn’s greatest joy during his French residency came from a course in cinema he developed at the American University in Paris in 1995. He came to the post with experience, having worked previously as a script assistant for a late-career Otto Preminger.
Living abroad, Charyn also found collaborators in his translator Marc Chénetier and the artist François Boucq, with whom he’s produced the award-winning graphic novels — known in France as bande dessinées — “The Magician’s Wife” (2015) and “Billy Budd, KGB” (2016). But the Sidel novels are what the French return to time and again.
“Maybe in all the editions it sold 50,000 copies, which is hardly a best seller” Charyn said of the success of “Blue Eyes” in France. “But young people really love them and they understood that these books were not like other crime novels. They had their own system.”
Charyn would appear to be in his literary element in Europe, but he prefers not to speak French while there. In an interview with Vallas he reported a kind of helplessness in France, struggling with Parisian doors that need to be opened with the aid of a button. There was a dream-like quality to Paris, he said, something that attracted him but lost him in the end.
He retired from his post at the American University in 2008 and let go of his apartment near Montparnasse. In the intervening years Charyn’s output has been largely concerned with, or written in the voice of, American icons like Emily Dickinson, Jerzy Kosinski, Abraham Lincoln and Roosevelt. He hasn’t written a book on Paris and there’s little in his New York home that betrays his connection to the city. When he returns there now, as he does every year, it’s as a visitor.
“Living in France, did it matter?” Charyn wondered of his long, Gallic adventure. “Did it change? I think it diminished me. I don’t think it enlarged me because I think it took me out of one texture and put me in another. I don’t know what it did.”
In his writing he had never really left New York.
Charyn’s living room maintains a 1-1 ratio of perches-for-cats to chairs-for-humans. A toy on a string is taped to the side of a bookcase. Cat food rests on a desk in Tupperware containers. But the cat, Ketzel (“Yiddish for cat”), is hiding. After some time calling for her, Charyn heads into the bedroom where she’s reposed in a flat cardboard box; she’s a white, shorthaired creature with black daubed spots on her head and body.
“The Cowboy King” is dedicated to a different pet: “Ting, mistress eternal and majestic cat.”
Ting was Charyn’s first brush with kitty love. The feline coup de foudre commenced when his partner, Lenore Riegel, left the black Abyssinian with him for a few days between visits to her office downtown.
“The minute she came in she hid under the bookcase for two days: didn’t see her at all. And the third day in the morning there she was sleeping right next to me,” Charyn said. “She just bonded with me in such a strange way.”
The moment recalls a passage in the “Cowboy King,” where Teddy Roosevelt, awaiting departure for Cuba with the Rough Riders, encounters a six-month-old cougar cub named Josephine, who was drawn from T.R.’s real life:
“I found Josephine snuggled beside me on my cot, whisker to whisker. There was no confusion in her enormous gray eyes. The little mountain lion was in love with me.”
After the Spanish-American War, Josephine proves too much to handle and is sent to the newly-opened Bronx Zoo. There, she gets sick and Roosevelt, then governor of New York, drives her back in a hurry to his Sagamore Hill estate.
“I cradled Jo, listened to her heartbeat, trying to breathe to my cat’s irregular rhythms,” Roosevelt narrates. He sings an old Dutch lullaby to the sick cougar. “I couldn’t have told you what the words meant, not then, not now. But they soothed Josephine — she didn’t wheeze as much.” But his love is not enough in the end, as he tells the reader “I could not hear Jo’s heart in that squall of water, and it was as if I had stopped breathing, too.”
Charyn says this scene was added on the advice of his editor, but it doesn’t take a lot of searching to find a sort of ur-text. In 2017 he wrote a short essay for Penny Zine about Ting. It ends:
“Ting sat near us, with that terrible wheeze. I cradled her in my arms, and the wheezing stopped. I knew she wouldn’t survive. But somehow I had calmed her. And at least for a few moments, the queen’s fright was gone.”
Charyn found his way into Roosevelt’s story through Brave Heart’s generosity to the newsboys (a sort of kindness Charyn never received from his own father). But in Josephine’s death there is a larger theme at play, one that points concretely to an element of autobiography parading as historical fiction. It’s as intimate a moment as any other in the book and one can see why.
Charyn, like the Roosevelts, is drawn to strays: cats, newsboys, double agents, bastard sons and grifters. He identifies with them.
As Charyn crosses the room, disrupting but never tripping over a carpet runner, he moves past a large portrait: His favorite picture and one more conspicuous than any family photo. In it Charyn gazes downward with a gentle expression. Dressed in a dark Eisenhower jacket, his face floats against the black backdrop. He holds Ketzel by the neck and leg and the cat stares down the barrel of the camera.
Riegel and Charyn adopted Ketzel from a shelter on 14th Street. He rescued the cat, adores and nurtures her. But neither one is fully domesticated.
“I’m like a wolf,” Charyn says with a nod to the portrait of him and Ketzel. “That’s why I like this cat. She’s half-wild.”
PJ Grisar is the Forward’s culture intern. He can be reached at [email protected].