A prolific novelist and cultural critic, Charyn has brought together a group of autobiographical and critical essays energized by a distinctive, memorable style at once accessible and brimming with erudition. As the all-American child of parents defined by the immigrant experience, Charyn includes several essays having to do with his Bronx childhood. His parents’ silences were the silences of displacement, and Charyn’s eventually countervailing life in language becomes his ironic emergence from that silence into well-scored, elevating song.
Charyn writes with passionate precision about writers, films and filmmakers, about New York’s marginalized classes, and all manner of cultural icons. He gets under the veneer of icons like Negro League baseball titan Josh Gibson. He celebrates the works of such Jewish writers as Isaac Babel, Henry Roth, the underpraised Samuel Ornitz, and the game-changing Saul Bellow, putting their radically different oeuvres in context. (His essay on Babel, a gem over fifty pages long, dazzles.)
In his essay “Ellis: An Autobiography,” Charyn takes readers back to the Ellis Island experience that shaped generations of new Americans. In addition to capturing the sensory reality of immigrant neighborhoods, he explores how new Americans achieved success and the political operations that gave them opportunities.
In Charyn’s portraits of Hollywood starlets — including Rita Hayworth, Gene Tierney, and Marlene Dietrich, among others — the presence of his mother, a notable beauty herself, floats in the background. His recounting of the sad story of Louise Brooks is the most provocatively detailed. As Charyn examines how and why Hollywood fed the dreams of so many, he justifies his claim that “Hollywood was the first global village.”
Charyn deftly blends the stories of his own life with the stories of those whose ordeals, failures, and victories hold special meaning for him as symptomatic of the American experience. Sometimes, he reaches beyond the American experience to slices of the European experience, whether formative or merely foreign. Wherever he takes us, Charyn’s mind is always agile, and his prose is stunningly electric.
Philip K. Jason is professor emeritus of English at the United States Naval Academy. A former editor of Poet Lore, he is the author or editor of twenty books, including Acts and Shadows: The Vietnam War in American Literary Culture and Don’t Wave Goodbye: The Children’s Flight from Nazi Persecution to American Freedom.