Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Jerome Charyn - Bitter Bronx - Review and Giveaway

About the Book

Brooklyn is dead. Long live the Bronx! In Bitter Bronx, Jerome Charyn returns to his roots and leads the literary renaissance of an oft-overlooked borough in this surprising new collection.

In Bitter Bronx, one of our most gifted and original novelists depicts a world before and after modern urban renewal destroyed the gritty sanctity of a land made famous by Ruth, Gehrig, and Joltin' Joe.

Bitter Bronx is suffused with the texture and nostalgia of a lost time and place, combining a keen eye for detail with Jerome Charyn's lived experience. These stories are informed by a childhood growing up near that middle-class mecca, the Grand Concourse; falling in love with three voluptuous librarians at a public library in the Lower Depths of the South Bronx; and eating at Mafia-owned restaurants along Arthur Avenue's restaurant row, amid a "land of deprivation…where fathers trundled home…with a monumental sadness on their shoulders."

In "Lorelei," a lonely hearts grifter returns home and finds his childhood sweetheart still living in the same apartment house on the Concourse; in "Archy and Mehitabel" a high school romance blossoms around a newspaper comic strip; in "Major Leaguer" a former New York Yankee confronts both a gang of drug dealers and the wreckage that Robert Moses wrought in his old neighborhood; and in three interconnected stories—"Silk & Silk," "Little Sister," and "Marla"—Marla Silk, a successful Manhattan attorney, discovers her father's past in the Bronx and a mysterious younger sister who was hidden from her, kept in a fancy rest home near the Botanical Garden. In these stories and others, the past and present tumble together in Charyn's singular and distinctly "New York prose, street-smart, sly, and full of lurches" (John Leonard, New York Times).

Throughout it all looms the "master builder" Robert Moses, a man who believed he could "save" the Bronx by building a highway through it, dynamiting whole neighborhoods in the process. Bitter Bronx stands as both a fictional eulogy for the people and places paved over by Moses' expressway and an affirmation of Charyn's "brilliant imagination" (Elizabeth Taylor, Chicago Tribune).

My Review

What really intrigues me about this splendid, little anthology is the way the author makes himself a part of it, yet holds back from claiming it's the slightest bit semi-autobiographical.

And he has every right to do that.

Let him work his magic in a fictional setting rather than give a play-by-play account of his life. It's more fun this way. He can be as creative as he wants to be without having to stick to a timeline or rigid set of facts. He can explore facets of himself through the guise of different characters. It broadens the scope, stretching the gossamer veil over our eyes, only giving us a purposefully distorted view of himself in order to more fully engage our imagination.

What really tickled my fancy is that Charyn even names one of the characters, Jerome, a male model who's traded like a piece of meat when all he wants is to further his literary ambitions and save the girl he loves from herself. "Archy and Mehitabel" is the classic doomed love story of Central Park privilege versus Bronx practicality. Jerome isn't enough for his lady love, and he knows that. Her mind is her treasure and her downfall, while his striking appearance is his. He's not taken seriously, and some of the bitterness of the book's title weighs heavily on his shoulders.

The high school teacher who is banished to the outskirts of civilization in "Milo's Last Chance," also bears some Jerome-esque qualities. He's expected to fail at his job, but instead he succeeds with the youth of the Bronx, filling their hearts and minds with the poetry of Byron and Keats. He even gets some of them into Harvard and Yale, garnering the attention of a PBS documentary crew. His modus operandi goes something like this, "He would find a rare prodigy—a girl from Senegal or a boy from Martinique—who dared dream of college, and Milo tutored such prodigies, helped them to write a decent composition." But he couldn't save himself. Having an affair with a former student breaks his spirit when she uses him to get her into a college in Maine, before running off with the owner of the town lap dance club, and eventually marrying him. Milo never recovers from the betrayal. He just plods through life, the fire having gone out of him.

But perhaps my favorite insight into Jerome's psyche comes through the voice of Dee. She's been "dubbed the photographer of freaks" and goes through the gestational pains that can be associated with a writer. She's "a huntress," who relentlessly pursues her subjects. She beleaguers them with her flashbulbs until they drop the mask they're hiding behind, showing her their real souls. She's presented thus, "She'd always been clicking, clicking with her eyes long before she had a camera." In essence, you can picture a writer clicking away in much the same way at a keyboard. But there's a reluctance to her work, especially when she wears down the giant of the Bronx who just so happens to be her friend. Jerome says it straight out, "She'd manipulated Eddie Carmel." Charyn even gets Dee to voice her embarrassment aloud to make some kind of amends, "I took advantage of you, Ed."

There's an interesting line to be crossed when blending reality with fiction because inevitably the two inter lap. Writers draw inspiration from the people they meet, regardless of how they meld their personality traits together. For any writer, this can create a conflict of conscience. How far is too far? That's why I think it's wise for Jerome to wrestle with these questions in prose instead of autobiography. He wants to talk about his past. It's burning within him to be released, even if he chooses the form he's most familiar with in order to tell it and share it with the rest of us. He may be bitter about the Bronx, but that's okay, because beneath all the sorrow you can tell it still fascinates him too.


Bitter Bronx can be purchased at:
Amazon, Barnes and Noble

Prices/Formats: $9.99-$12.49 ebook, $24.95 hardcover
Genre: Short Stories
Pages: 320
ISBN: 9780871404893
Publisher: Liveright
Release: June 1, 2015
Click to add to your Goodreads list.

About the Author

Jerome Charyn's stories have appeared in The Atlantic, The Paris Review, The American Scholar, Epoch, Narrative, Ellery Queen, and other magazines. His most recent novel is I Am Abraham. He lived for many years in Paris and currently resides in Manhattan.

Links to connect with Jerome:
Web Site
Blog Tour Site

About the Giveaway

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  1. Great piece! You can't take the Bronx out of Jerome Charyn and, as you so richly wrote, you can't take Jerome Charyn out of the Bronx. Thanks so much for this review.