Non­fic­tion

In the Shad­ow of King Saul: Essays on Silence and Song

  • Review
By – July 31, 2018

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.

Discussion Questions