Ear­li­er this week, Jerome Charyn wrote about grow­ing up Jew­ish in the Bronx. He is the author of the recent­ly pub­lished short sto­ry col­lec­tion Bit­ter Bronx and will be blog­ging here all week for Jew­ish Book Coun­cil’s Vis­it­ing Scribe series.

Some­times it felt like the end of the line. There was no place to go beyond the East Bronx; you could­n’t even drown your­self in the shal­low waters of the Bronx Riv­er; you had to learn to sur­vive on your own prowess.

I sort of lived in a com­ic book uni­verse, because I was sur­round­ed by mani­acs and mis­fits — egg can­dlers who had lost the art of can­dling and lived out their days mum­bling to them­selves; Jew­ish base­ball prodi­gies who had spent a month or so in the minor leagues years and years ago and still walked around with a base­ball glove; vic­tims of polio ‑beau­ti­ful girls — who would do entrechats in the street and stum­ble all over them­selves, dream­ing of a lost career …

This was my Bronx. Vio­lence was the key to every­thing. Vio­lence could erupt at any sec­ond; I would have ten fights every morn­ing on my way to school. I threw some­one off the roof once to save my own skin; I watched him plunge from one clothes­line to the next like a boy on a tram­po­line. I might have killed him, but he land­ed in a great knot of laun­dry. I did­n’t rejoice. That’s how it was liv­ing around defeat­ed people.

Bronx, New York. 1947. Pho­to via Andy Blair.

I was only able to sur­vive because my old­er broth­er — Har­vey Philip Charyn — was feared in the neigh­bor­hood. He would lat­er become a homi­cide detec­tive, an expert on the Mafia. A tough guy once put a gun to Har­vey’s head, and my broth­er did­n’t pan­ic. He clutched the bar­rel in his hand, and who­ev­er was try­ing to kill him could­n’t pull the trig­ger. There was no point in fight­ing with Har­vey, because in the end you were going to lose. 

This kind of chaos was a tremen­dous advan­tage, because it allowed me to see things that oth­er kids did­n’t see. I’m used to chaos. I know how to dance with it, how to make love to chaos. 

The only way I could sur­vive the bar­ren land­scape of the Bronx was with words, and I had to teach myself. Lan­guage has always been a kind of weapon — a sword — and you’re con­stant­ly scratch­ing at things. Those scratch­es pro­vide the rhythm for a writer, a fun­da­men­tal music. And once you find the music — pull it right out of the chaos — lan­guage comes alive. Some­thing with­in your soul urges you on, and you bounce from here to there. Your life becomes a series of picaresque adven­tures as you move from cat­a­stro­phe to cat­a­stro­phe, hop­ing that you’ll be able to climb out of it. That’s the only way I know how to write. Oth­er­wise I would have become a crazy egg can­dler, mum­bling to myself until the day I died. 

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. Read more about him here.

Relat­ed Content:

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 BerlinIn the Shad­ow of King Saul: Essays on Silence and SongJerzy: 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.