Thursday, February 27, 2014

Jerome Charyn - I Am Abraham - Review and Giveaway

About the Book

Narrated in Lincoln’s own voice, the tragicomic I Am Abraham promises to be the masterwork of Jerome Charyn’s remarkable career.

Since publishing his first novel in 1964, Jerome Charyn has established himself as one of the most inventive and prolific literary chroniclers of the American landscape. Here in I Am Abraham, Charyn returns with an unforgettable portrait of Lincoln and the Civil War. Narrated boldly in the first person, I Am Abraham effortlessly mixes humor with Shakespearean-like tragedy, in the process creating an achingly human portrait of our sixteenth President.

Tracing the historic arc of Lincoln's life from his picaresque days as a gangly young lawyer in Sangamon County, Illinois, through his improbable marriage to Kentucky belle Mary Todd, to his 1865 visit to war-shattered Richmond only days before his assassination, I Am Abraham hews closely to the familiar Lincoln saga. Charyn seamlessly braids historical figures such as Mrs. Keckley—the former slave, who became the First Lady's dressmaker and confidante—and the swaggering and almost treasonous General McClellan with a parade of fictional extras: wise-cracking knaves, conniving hangers-on, speculators, scheming Senators, and even patriotic whores.

We encounter the renegade Rebel soldiers who flanked the District in tattered uniforms and cardboard shoes, living in a no-man's-land between North and South; as well as the Northern deserters, young men all, with sunken, hollowed faces, sitting in the punishing sun, waiting for their rendezvous with the firing squad; and the black recruits, whom Lincoln’s own generals wanted to discard, but who play a pivotal role in winning the Civil War. At the center of this grand pageant is always Lincoln himself, clad in a green shawl, pacing the White House halls in the darkest hours of America’s bloodiest war.

Using biblically cadenced prose, cornpone nineteenth-century humor, and Lincoln’s own letters and speeches, Charyn concocts a profoundly moral but troubled commander in chief, whose relationship with his Ophelia-like wife and sons—Robert, Willie, and Tad—is explored with penetrating psychological insight and the utmost compassion. Seized by melancholy and imbued with an unfaltering sense of human worth, Charyn’s President Lincoln comes to vibrant, three-dimensional life in a haunting portrait we have rarely seen in historical fiction.

My Review

I liked this book for what it's not - a timeline of dates, a stuffy account of battles, a dry historical tome more dissertation than entertainment. Jerome Charyn certainly surprised me with I AM ABRAHAM. It was nothing like I expected, and that element of surprise turned out to be a very good thing. It takes an author with a deft hand to strip away a reader's expectations and replace them with his own, and Charyn delivers in spades. This isn't the Honest Abe schoolchildren grow up reading about. This is the man, the myth, the legend seen through the eyes of a literary genius. A welcome treat, indeed!

Being a historical fiction novel, Charyn takes some liberties. Not with the facts, so much as his interpretation of them. He does an excellent job of throwing the reader into the hardscrabble existence Lincoln eeked out when he was saved from drowning at the edge of the frontier. Conditions were horrendous and unsanitary. Livestock resided indoors and dirt floors opened up during the rainy season. To think that such a man as Lincoln climbed out of this cesspool of civilization to reign supreme is truly remarkable.

After running away from an abusive father, Lincoln claws his way through disease, Indian raids and heartache to begin his political career. He clings to the written word, assured that it will bring him salvation from his bouts of depression and the sting of poverty. He canvases the greater Springfield area as a traveling lawyer, lending his talents of persuasion to local farmers seeking justice. He just doesn't make a lot of money doing it, certainly not enough to court a noteworthy bride.

But Mary Todd doesn't give a hoot about his limited circumstances. She believes in his potential, forsaking her affluent Southern belle lifestyle to settle down with a man who considers her an intellectual equal. Even though the two couldn't be more different. She's loud and dramatic. He's quiet and introspective. She wants their oldest son, Bob, to be a sophisticated Harvard scholar among the upper crust of society. While he can't relate to a boy he views as a confounded stranger. They battle through the sorrow of losing two of their four children, growing apart as they try to make sense of their life in the White House. Mary enjoys being the queen bee, even if living on the public stage becomes more than she can handle. Abe isn't about winning approval ratings. He's content to let things sort themselves out, instead of stirring up trouble. But even isn't immune to living in a fishbowl as he tries to calm his wife's frayed nerves.

Yet this somewhat reluctant commander in chief holds the nation together even though his home life is basically ripping apart at the seams. He sinks into a more frequent state of melancholia, plagued by the specter of death that surrounds him. The Rebel Yell sounds on the banks of the Potomac. Union firing squads execute attempted deserters within earshot. Wounded troops flood the Capitol, dragging their mangled bodies over his front lawn. Generals take to the air in hot air balloons above his roof. Spies hover around his wife's private parlor. The man is literally surrounded by chaos.

But he doesn't crack, he perseveres, even when he doesn't want to. He's tired, sad and alone but he does his duty for his country. He leaves the fighting to his troops, depending on those he's placed in power. He trusts their judgement and doesn't interfere in areas outside of his expertise. But he's not afraid to shake things up by promoting people like Ulysses S. Grant or by getting his wife's biracial seamstress out of prison. He goes about his business, swatting down one problem after another. It's no wonder he gets right to the heart of the matter in the Gettysburg Address, even when he's criticized for its brevity. By that time, the poor man is so exhausted that the fewer words the better, when it comes to getting his point across.

Overall, the plot is engaging and follows a linear structure right through to the end of the war at the surrender at Appomattox. The book chillingly concludes with Lincoln walking the streets of a conquered, war torn Richmond, the very seat of Confederate power. He tours the home of his counterpart, Jefferson Davis, along with his young son, Tad, looking to find any apparent similarities between him and his rival. Instead, Tad prophetically talks to his father about seeing angels through the smoke of the burned out town. Not knowing that he has just days to live before meeting an assassin's bullet, Lincoln looks back and examines his life, wondering if such things as angels exist anymore. After the death and destruction, he's witnessed he's no longer sure. Little does he realize, the whole country is about to view him as one throughout all of history.



Click this link to read an excerpt.


I Am Abraham can be purchased at:
Amazon, Barnes and Noble

Prices/Formats: $12.99-$14.99 ebook, $26.95 hardcover
Pages: 464
ISBN: 9780871404275
Publisher: Liveright
Release: February 3, 2014
Click to add to your Goodreads list.

About the Author

Jerome Charyn is an award-winning American author. With nearly 50 published works, Charyn has earned a long-standing reputation as an inventive and prolific chronicler of real and imagined American life. Michael Chabon calls him "one of the most important writers in American literature." New York Newsday hailed Charyn as "a contemporary American Balzac,"and the Los Angeles Times described him as "absolutely unique among American writers." Since the 1964 release of Charyn's first novel, Once Upon a Droshky, he has published 30 novels, three memoirs, eight graphic novels, two books about film, short stories, plays and works of non-fiction. Two of his memoirs were named New York Times Book of the Year. Charyn has been a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction. He received the Rosenthal Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and has been named Commander of Arts and Letters by the French Minister of Culture. Charyn was Distinguished Professor of Film Studies at the American University of Paris until he left teaching in 2009. In addition to his writing and teaching, Charyn is a tournament table tennis player, once ranked in the top 10 percent of players in France. Noted novelist Don DeLillo called Charyn's book on table tennis, Sizzling Chops & Devilish Spins, "The Sun Also Rises of ping-pong." Charyn lives in Paris and New York City.

Links to connect with Jerome:
Web Site
Facebook (author)
Twitter (author)
Goodreads (author)
Facebook (book)
Twitter (book)
Goodreads (book)
Blog Tour Site

About the Giveaway

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  1. Carol, thanks for the review. So glad you enjoyed it! :)

  2. Wow, Carol, you really get this novel. So pleased with your lovely review that hits all the high notes. The last paragraph is a beautiful vignette that goes to the heart of what Jerome Charyn wrote. Thank you for taking the time to read the novel and for your heartfelt review. -- Lenore

    1. Your comment just made my year! Thank you so much :)