In the Shadow of King Saul, Jerome Charyn. New York: Bellevue Literary Press, 2018.
Summary: A collection of eleven essays spanning nearly thirty years of Charyn’s literary career, on the New York in which he grew up, his family, other authors and celebrities.
Jerome Charyn may be one of America’s most prolific writers, with over fifty books in fifty years. Michael Chabon has called him “one of the most important writers in American literature.” I only recently became acquainted with him when I reviewed Sergeant Salinger, a novel based on the World War 2 experiences of J. D. Salinger.
This collection of essays, second in Bellevue Literary Press’s “The Art of the Essay” series is a collection of ten essays by Charyn from 1978 to 2005, plus an introductory essay, “Silence and Song” that both traces his life as a writers and explains the selection of essays under his rubric of silence and song. We learn about his childhood in a poor and rough neighborhood in the Bronx, his discovery of his love of words, studies at Columbia, and the beginnings of his writing career.
“The Sadness of Saul” is in some ways the archetype for other essays in this collection. Saul reflects the contrast of silence to David’s songs. Charyn finds Saul of greater interest, a tragic figure who did not want to be king, who lacked a voice. Charyn believes writing begins in the silences.
He offers a fascinating account of the history of Ellis Island, the power brokers in the Bronx neighborhoods of his youth in “Haunch Paunch and Jowl” and the meaning of the “Faces on the Wall” in the rise of modern cinema. Most significant are the authors about which he writes–Saul Bellow, Anzia Yezierska, and a lengthy mini-biography of Isaac Babel. The last two essays are more personal, focused around his mother, “the dark lady from Belorusse,” the inattention of her husband and the letters from her brother in Mogilev that sustained her, and her angst when war interrupted them.
It strikes me that this is a book for New Yorkers and followers of Charyn. Some essays had the feeling of “inside baseball” that those familiar with his context, or the writers of whom he writes, would find fascinating. For me, they suggested that some of these places and people might be worth knowing more of. A few of the essays, on Saul, on Josh Gibson, the Negro league star who sank into insanity, and the forgotten life of Louise Brooks, all of them “silent figures,” were of greater interest.
This is part of a series on the art of the essay. The artfulness of Charyn is to awaken our interest in times and places and people outside our awareness. He is able to connect experiences we have in common, or even the essence of what it means for us to be human, our aspirations and longings, our hopes and despairs, our silences and our songs with the stories on these pages.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.