Life of the Mind

In the Shadow of King Saul

Jerome Charyn. Bellevue Literary Press, 2018. 271 pages. $16.99.

By Indira Ganesan

In the Shadow of King Saul, a series of personal essays, Charyn, now 81 years old, writes about his growing up and his vivacious energy to read, learn, and observe the tumultuous life around him in the South Bronx, which he points out only had stationary stores and classic comics. Are you in? I was, from his first page.  

But let me tell you a little bit of where I come from and who I am. At my core, I am a fighter. It comes from being an immigrant, born in India, raised in the States, living an Indian life at home and an American one outside while growing up. Assimilation was part of the fight, and fighting for certain rights and responsibilities was also part of the struggle. Books were my protection and my mask, so I could wrap myself in heroic adventure stories from Malory and Dumas, learn comedy from Ariel’s verdict on the human species, and later from Kingston’s brave Woman Warrior. I stole my reading, from the back of cereal boxes to surreptitiously reading the comics at the Go-Go Stationary Mart until the owner chased me out. You see why I connect with Charyn? Only I grew up in the “maddening dream of the middle class,” as Charyn puts it, the suburbs that that consumes immigrants.

Charyn writes about the sadness of Biblical Saul, the underdog, the outcaste who can never be as good as the Lord’s favorite, David—Saul who becomes, he says, the very idea of a king as a lonely man. He presides over a time, like ours, Charyn writes, “without voices or visions.” Charyn writes about the need to steal language, as important as Prometheus’ fire, to flourish, to rise, to fight. He becomes a reader, shunning school, teaching himself, and being introduced to Isaac Babel’s work after writing his first book. Babel who wrote of fighters, of people who hid behind glasses and newspapers, and dreamed a different life. Babel who was all juxtaposition, writing about tragedy, about startling recognitions that stop one’s breath a thousand times in a life.  

Jerome Charyn knows this about life, too, and he knows Isaac Babel. He writes about Babel the master writer, and about Babel the man, who had two families, who abandoned his beloved daughter Nathalie in Paris with her mother, and writes about his apprenticeship into becoming a writer. Charyn discusses Babel’s “My First Fee,” how the story of a man translating Maupassant is also the story of Babel’s awakening to what it can be to become and die as a writer, in all its joy and tragedy.  

Charyn becomes as lyrical as Babel, a heart-warming transformation that after reading his essays on the late writer one sees in the vigor of his prose. What better tribute can a writer give but to create original work in homage to his own writing hero? He writes about growing up with street smarts, a cliché he turns inside-out, as he reveals how tough his street was. Growing up in the Bronx, he sought to escape his father through both books and a knowledge of the gangs around town. He doesn’t tell the story straight, but dances with history, with metaphor, to describe immigration, racism, and his broken-hearted family. He weaves a song for his mother who waits vigilant for a letter from her brother caught in the tragedy of the Second World War, a mysterious beauty who walked in sadness to the post office with her son in vain, for an affirmation that never came. Men fell in love with her, but her husband couldn’t see it. And Charyn watches and thinks, and tells the story, twice.  

But early in the collection, Charyn tells us that he is neither Isaac Babel nor Arnold Rothstein, a gangster who was the basis for the character Meyer Wolfsheim in The Great Gatsby, the same gangster Fitzgerald got so wrong. Fitzgerald was the fair-haired Princeton boy, and “Meyer Wolfsheim was Princeton’s version of the Broadway Jew, endearing and vulgar.” Fitzgerald missed the nuances, how much the character was like Gatsby himself.   

Seek a copy of In the Shadow of King Saul to read Charyn’s words himself. In an essay describing Saul Bellow’s influence on a generation of hitherto silenced, ghettoized Jewish writers, he describes what Bellow did with English—he took out the white space. With Augie March, “the novel burst out of its narrative skin and became an assault on language itself, a great whooping war cry.” Charyn says that not only did Bellow’s novel free the words of “Nabokov, Pynchon, John Hawkes, and John Barth,” it also allowed for Gunter Grass’ The Tin Drum, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. I would add Rushdie’s Midnight Children to the mix. Bellow “initiated readers into the notion that a novel could be a jungle of words...or a much wilder thing.”  

This is why Charyn’s book excites me, as a writer and a reader, for it shows the path that language clears for the imagination. Read the book for Babel, for the heartbreak story of Hattie Meyers aka Anzia Yezierska, who gained fame in the 1920s and lapsed into silence until her “novel-cum-memoir” Red Ribbon on a White Horse, about her own unraveling as a writer.” He homes in on her self-described need to “get at something unutterable, that could only be said in the white spaces between the words”—the very spaces Charyn decodes as “Her own lost language—the Yiddish, Russian, Polish of her childhood, before America. This was why she was so brutally shut out. Anzia wrote ...with missing musical chords...the sadness of the unsaid.”  Read it for Louise Brooks, for the fury of hate directed to Jews by Henry James, and read it for Jerome Charyn, chronicler, balladeer, discerning critic, author.  

Novelist Indira Ganesan was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa at Vassar College in 1982. Her books include The Journey (Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), Inheritance (Alfred A. Knopf, 1998) and As Sweet As Honey (Alfred A. Knopf, 2013).


(Posted on 2/5/2019 )