Has anyone ever really dealt with the Jewish underclass of the Bronx, where I grew up, next to the trolley tracks of Southern Boulevard and Boston Road? Some of us might look back with a kind of nostalgia, talk of a golden period, when families rambled around Indian Lake in Crotona Park, before Robert Moses ruined the borough with his super expressway. People ask me if the Bronx had ever been my playground. It was a little paradise of empty spaces, a garden where nothing would grow, except bitterness and regret. I had one book in the apartment where I lived with my parents and two brothers. It was the first volume of an encyclopedia that must have been sent to my parents as some sales gimmick — it was a treatise on the letter “A.” And so I memorized that book, starting with aardvark, and could sing out to you all the manifestations of “A.” Then my language stopped. And years later, when I read Walter Abish’s avant-garde novel, Alphabetical Africa, where every chapter begins with a different letter of the alphabet, I wondered if he too had started life with the same encyclopedia, but had been privileged enough to have more than one volume, since he could go all the way to “Z.” And here I am, like some wily pirate, trapped inside the letter “A.” Well, that’s the Bronx.
I began to wonder why the apartments I have in Paris and New York resemble barren, nondescript closets. Both apartments are in luxurious buildings in classic neighborhoods — Montparnasse and Greenwich Village — but they’re absolutely sparse, without much furniture at all. Does this void recall the void of growing up in the Bronx, where there was little “furniture” in the street — that is, nothing that could ever catch the eye? Is this “desert” more comfortable for me, and did it force me a long, long time ago to live inside my head? I must have been a novelist at five and six, or perhaps I was a walking, talking text, sucking in the movies I saw, the stories I heard, and the adventures of my older brother, Harvey, one of the boldest boys in the East Bronx, a Casanova at nine, prepared to take on any gang, a knight guarding his own turf, while I was frightened of anything beyond the reach of my nose, and lived only to imagine, to invent out of the nothingness I knew. Harvey would become a homicide detective, a catcher of cases, and I was the one who killed people off, the prince of an altogether different realm, a tumbler of words, who could only be adventurous on the page.
Jerome Charyn’s stories have appeared in The Atlantic, Paris Review, American Scholar, Epoch, Narrative, Ellery Queen, and other magazines. His most recent books include Bitter Bronx and I Am Abraham. He lived for many years in Paris and currently resides in Manhattan.
- Out of the Bronx: The Joel Sachs Stories by Jerome Kass
- Boulevard of Dreams: Heady Times, Heartbreak, and Hope along the Grand Concourse in the Bronx by Constance Rosenblum
- Just Kids from the Bronx: Telling It the Way It Was by Arlene Alda
Jerome Charyn is the author of more than fifty works of fiction and nonfiction, including Ravage & Son; Sergeant Salinger; Cesare: A Novel of War-Torn Berlin; In the Shadow of King Saul: Essays on Silence and Song; Jerzy: A Novel; and A Loaded Gun: Emily Dickinson for the 21st Century. Among other honors, his work has been longlisted for the PEN Award for Biography, shortlisted for the Phi Beta Kappa Christian Gauss Award, and selected as a finalist for the Firecracker Award and PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction. Charyn has also been named a Commander of Arts and Letters by the French Minister of Culture and received a Guggenheim Fellowship and the Rosenthal Family Foundation Award for Fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He lives in New York.