Rav­age & Son

  • Review
By – August 21, 2023

The Low­er East Side Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty of the ear­ly twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry is the back­drop of Jerome Charyn’s newest nov­el. With Abra­ham Cahan — the social­ist-lean­ing founder of The For­ward—as one of its cen­tral char­ac­ters, Rav­age & Son weaves togeth­er the immi­grant expe­ri­ence, New York City’s rich gang­ster his­to­ry, and a healthy dose of fic­tion. It is a detec­tive sto­ry about the ram­pant pros­ti­tu­tion, extor­tion, and mur­der that sits just below the sur­face of this strug­gling Jew­ish community. 

Cahan serves as a self-anoint­ed detec­tive and is at times a con­flict­ed moral com­pass for the com­mu­ni­ty. He uses the journalist’s pow­er of the pen to expose the abus­es of Lionel Rav­age, a Jew­ish slum­lord who shields him­self from crit­i­cism by hid­ing under the mag­nan­i­mous sup­port of new immigrants.

Oth­er char­ac­ters of Charyn’s nov­el are equal­ly com­plex and cap­ti­vat­ing. Ben, whom Cahan res­cued from a reform school and sent to Havard to study law, has returned to the Low­er East Side. Against Cahan’s hopes for his pro­tégée, Ben has joined the Kehilla, a gang that is ded­i­cat­ed to polic­ing the Ghet­to” and fund­ed by the afflu­ent Ger­man Jew­ish immi­grants who have made it out. Ben’s cen­tral task is find­ing the pros­ti­tute-killer of Allen Street. His work both defends the help­less and serves swift, vig­i­lante-style jus­tice to the abuser. He is aid­ed by Monk East­man, a char­ac­ter Charyn pulls from the true-crime his­to­ry of the Low­er East Side and then mix­es with a bit of mag­i­cal real­ism. And final­ly there’s Babette, an ostra­cized woman whose father wish­es to mar­ry her off to Ben. She uses her charm to send Ben to find her miss­ing lover — anoth­er mis­di­rect­ed adven­ture for a char­ac­ter in search of a purpose.

Read­ers of Charyn’s ear­li­er New York City – cen­tered his­tor­i­cal fic­tion will enjoy return­ing to this genre and set­ting. The mul­ti­ple detec­tive-style plot lines will keep the read­er guess­ing about how they’ll inter­twine. Of course, the lives of Ben, Cahan, Lionel, and Babette ulti­mate­ly con­verge, sug­gest­ing that good and evil over­lap in unex­pect­ed ways. We are also left with the impres­sion that despite a person’s best inten­tions, they will always suc­cumb to dark real­i­ties of their time, place, and com­mu­ni­ty. The noir style of this nov­el shows Jerome Charyn at his best.

Jonathan Fass is the Man­ag­ing Direc­tor of Edu­ca­tion­al Tech­nol­o­gy and Strat­e­gy at The Jew­ish Edu­ca­tion Project of New York.

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