Growing up in the Bronx badlands
Jerome Charyn's Bronx is a landscape of magic and passion. It's the Bronx of the late 1940s and early '50s, a place as vivid as Twain's Hannibal or Garcia Marquez's Macondo. With its Yiddish syntax, American yearning and stage full of unforgettable characters, Bronx Boy concludes the trilogy about the borough that Charyn began back in 1997 with The Dark Lady from Belorusse. That memoir, as well as its sequel The Black Swan, has the same unmistakable blend of mystery and eccentricity as the new volume, and all teem with convincing details of ordinary life in the badlands of New York City. If Norman Mailer had written Bronx Boy, he would have probably subtitled it memoir as novel/novel as memoir, for, as Charyn himself says in a note at the end of the narrative, this is an imaginative re-creation, often not intended to portray historical characters, places and events. A memoir of his junior high school years, Bronx Boy is actually a collection of surreal anecdotes framed by the voice and vision of the 13-year-old narrator, Baby Charyn.
The life Baby Charyn lives in the Bronx is an exciting one, to be sure. His gang is called the Bronx Boys, and their politics is the democracy of the candy store. Intelligence, talent and charisma are the ways to rise in such a place, and Baby Charyn has them all. He wins a contest for soda jerks sponsored by the gangster Meyer Lansky, becoming in the process the aide-de-camp of Sarah Dove, a beautiful drug addict and prostitute. He also becomes the main attraction at a roadhouse in New Jersey, a place that sits on stilts on the edge of the Palisades. The owner of the roadhouse, reminiscent of Jay Gatsby, is a hero of the badlands named Will Scarlet, a prince of thieves, but a man whom the narrator understands will disappoint me one day . . . as fickle and destructive as any prince of chaos. Will Scarlet is a gangster but not like Meyer Lansky, who calculates every move like a chess master. As Baby Charyn sees it, Will Scarlet had that Bronx disease: a deadly passion that created windstorms wherever he went. I lived inside that wind. It's a dark wind of fantasy and nightmare that the narrator lives within a windstorm that shapes a dreamscape of beautifully surreal characters like Miranda, the six-foot-tall gang leader who has sex with Charyn in the hallway of her apartment while her blind grandmother sits nearby asking, What's that noise? Miranda argues like Socrates and makes love like Emma Bovary. And she can fight like an Amazon. Any story of the modern Bronx is a narrative of warfare, and Charyn's is no exception: And so we went to war. It wasn't the Montagues and the Capulets, with their long knives and pretty words. It was the badlands, not the rich town of Verona. And I wasn't heir to any fortune. I was a Bronx boy by way of Belorusse. We bivouacked at the candy store until Smooth Malone arrived with Lansky's gorillas, carrying baseball bats Joe Dimaggio specials, with the Clipper's signature burnt into the wood. Any story of the Bronx in the second half of the 20th century also centers upon the archetypal tale of escape. It is Dr. Baron, a one-time successful novelist turned English teacher at Ridder High School, who points the way for the narrator. He meets Charyn on the roof of the school to share his wisdom. A failed Dostoyevsky who cannot escape the Bronx, Dr. Baron gives Charyn the advice that is the thematic heart of all books about the district: Become a gardener, a hobo, a crook, but run, Baby, run. This is the story of the Bronx: escape or die.
Charyn escaped to tell the tale. And a wonderful one it is, crowded with egg creams and bar mitzvahs, gang wars and ghosts, stories and storytellers. A scion of Meyer Lansky and Flaubert, Charyn, in the end, is a Bronx boy with a blue feather as his pistol and his pen. Bronx native Dr. Michael Pearson directs the creative writing program at Old Dominion University.