Alas when I wrote this review for Duthie's Reader in 1995 how was I to know that Jerome Charyn would retire the "Pink Commish" Isaac Sidel and that I would have to satisfy my appetite for Charyn books with some not so satisfying books as a treatise on ping-pong (never table tennis) Sizzling Chops & Devilish Spins - Ping-Pong and the Art of Staying Alive (2001). Or I would polish off in an evening his slim autobiographical books like the one about his mother The Dark Lady From Belorusse (1997). Like most Chinese/Roumanian food these books left me hungry for more.
I'd lapsed into illiteracy after the High School of Music and Art. I could spell, yes...and think a little. I hadn't forgotten Modigliani. I'd pick up girls at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I'd wander to the Frick Collection, stand in front of Rembrandt's Polish Rider, wait for that light, lovely sound of the Frick waterfall. I'd been a cartoonist once. I could draw every hair on King Kong's head and paint his blue nostrils. But I wanted to be Modigliani and elongate everything with hands, feet and faces were stretched out ike a choo-choo train. I was a counterfeiter. Modigliani manqué. - From Metropolis (1986)
By 1973, Bronx author Jerome Charyn, then thirty-six, had written seven novels. Each one had "sunk into invisibility". He decided to "scribble a crime novel". He invented a New York tribe of pork-eating marrano pickpockets, the Guzmanns (from Lisbon via Lima), angels of doom in the fall of Ping-Pong-playing NYPD homicide detective Manfred Coen in Blue Eyes.
Isaac Sidel, a character who haunts Blue Eyes, comes back in three more of
Charyn's crime novels, himself haunted by the dead Blue Eyes. Blue Eyes, Marilyn the Wild, The Education of Patrick Silver, and Secret Isaac are known as The Isaac Quartet. Beginning in 1990, Charyn wrote four more, The Good Policeman, Maria's Girls, Montezuma Man and Little Angel Street, collectively The Odessa Quartet. In the eight novels (all published my Mysterious Press) Isaac Sidel rises from first deputy police commissioner to commissioner(in which he uses a desk of that other famous commish, Teddy Roosevelt) and then in Little Angel Street to mayor elect of New York.
I was in Jerome Charyn's Greenwich Village apartment in October, 1995 and I asked him why Isaac Sidel always cried. Charyn replied, "In our culture it's considered effeminate. It condemns emotion in men. I like Isaac to be as if his whole body, everything about him, could express his feelings, from his tapeworm, to his sideburns, to his tears. He's someone who bleeds. His feelings erupt quickly. I like the idea of men crying."
While sipping my tea I watched Charyn's intense eyes and recalled a description of him by his friend Mexican writer Paco Ignacio Taibo II": the Vampire of Manhattan-Paris". (When Charyn is not in New York he lives in Paris in a flat overlooking Montparnasse cemetery.) I asked Charyn why he isn't rich and famous. In a resonant voice (Manfred Coen's, Isaac Sidel's?) he replied, "My use of language is very particular and it's something that many people cant'deal with. To me everything is in the language. Am I realy a crime writer? A mystery writer? When the French look at it they look at in in terms of the metaphysics. They understand what I am trying to do. I don't think the Americans really do. My books are linguistic attacks that happen to to talk about cops. I'm not intersted in catching the crook. They are a shadow land where good and evil just come together and you can't tell the difference."
Charyn describes his writing as "scratchy, secretive as a snake". Whatever it is, it a takes a bit fo trying to understand, but it will soon seduce you as it did me. Charyn's Isaac books are full of Roumanians(why Roumanians? "There are many in my apartment building"), odd characters with a fondness for frozen Milky Ways, people who get Glocked rather than killed, Zen descriptions of the advantages of Butterfly Ping-Pong bats (never paddles!) over sandpaper one, frequent diatribes on the loss of the New York Giants and baseball during World War II, of antiquarian baseball leauges, of Herman Melville, James Joyce, men that cry often, and the city of Carcasonne. Then there is Margaret Tolstoy, sometimes Anastasia, who wears wigs, carries a Glock, breaks Isaac's heart, and works for Frederick LeComte, the cultural commissa of the FBI, a villain in a blue suit. (Charyn named LeComte after a college professor who rejected his early attempts at writing.)
Between 1973 and 1994 Charyn wrote eleven other novels (including, in 1985, War Cries Over Avenue C a horrific book about Vietnam that Charyn describes as "a hallucination that hss the very fabric of New York") and a non-fiction book about New York Metropolis (my favourite book ever about the city), Darlin' Bill, a fantasy about "Will Bill" Hickok, won Charyn the Richard adn Hinda Rosenthal Foundation Award of the American Academny and Intitute of Arts and Letters in 1981. Asked about the award shortly afterterward, Charyn said, "It is given to 'that novel that is a commercial failure but is nevertheless a literary achievement'. You have to lose in order to win. In past years it's been won by Joyce Carol Oates, John Updike, Philip Roth, Thomas Pynchon and Bernard Malamud."
That Charyn isn't rich or famous I take as highly subjective but simple proof that God does not exist.
Note: In Charyn's last Isaac Sidel novel, Citizen Sidel (1999), the former commish becomes Vice President Elect of the United States. I am not sure if my favourite New York Times columnist, Maureen Dowd, has ever read Jerome Charyn. Her columns somehow remind me of Charyn's scribbles. All of Charyn's Isaac novels (and a couple non-Issac featuring retired hitman Sidney Holden, Elsinore and Paradise Man ) were designed and illustrated by the mysteriously named Bascove (above, left). While in New York in 1995 I did get to meet Bascove. Bascove was a very short and energetic young woman.
While I learned to perfect my ping-pong on the pitching deck of an Argentine Navy ship I had the impression that even with a Butterfly bat in my hand I would have been soundly defeated by Charyn.
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