Review: In the Shadow of King Saul

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.

Review: Sergeant Salinger

Sergeant Salinger, Jerome Charyn. New York: Bellevue Literary Press, 2021.

Summary: A fictional account of J.D. Salinger’s early adult life, centered around his wartime service with the CIC including the landing at Utah Beach, fighting in Normandy’s Hedgerows, the interrogation of German captives, the harrowing fighting of Huertgen Forest during the Battle of the Bulge, and the discovery of a Nazi death camp.

J. D. Salinger was one of the more enigmatic and reclusive authors in the twentieth century. Catcher in the Rye and Franny and Zooey are among the most significant novels of the twentieth century and arguably influential on the style of other more recent works. In this work of fiction, that closely follows Salinger’s biography Jerome Charyn explores the impact of World War Two on the trajectory of Salinger’s life between opening and closing scenes in New York.

The work opens with Salinger invited by the debutante Oona O’Neill to join her as Walter Winchell held court at Table 50. At this time he’s completed prep school, has had a few stories published while Oona is serving as eye candy as Winchell hobnobs with the likes of Hemingway. He loves Oona but the war interrupts their relationship. After a tantalizing but unfulfilled last night, she goes to Hollywood while he is drafted and sent to England with the Counter Intelligence Corp while training as a rifleman.

He carries a satchel with a manuscript whose main character is Holden Caulfield and he writes when he can on an old army issue Corona. That is, until the horrors of war interrupt. He witnesses a horrible training accident at Slapton Sands and has to help with the coverup, burying the bodies. He is in the second wave to hit Utah Beach, shepherding his captain, who is shell-shocked to safety. He joins the fighting in the hedgerows of Normandy. He survives the horror of Huertgen Forest in the Battle of the Bulge. He stumbles on a Nazi death camp, unable to get rid of the smell of burning and rotting bodies, and the horror of the walking dead, the few survivors. All of this actually happened to Salinger.

Charyn portrays a Salinger psychologically damaged, needing to check into a psychiatric institute, where he meets and later marries Sylvie, another brief and failed relationship. He feels so damaged, he helps with de-Nazification rather than going home as soon as possible. He’s not lost his humanity, tenderly rescuing and paying for the care of Alicja, a young girl assaulted in the camp, left tongue-less. When he does return, he has episodes of “zoning out” and only with the care of family, especially his sister Dottie does he get to the place where he can write in an apartment on Sleepy Hollow Lane.

Was Salinger a victim of PTSD? That is what Charyn and others who have written of Salinger would have us believe, His daughter Margaret would contend otherwise. But the novel offers a compelling portrayal of a psychologically scarred Salinger, leaving us wonder how things would have been different apart from the war.

Charyn frames the work with two unfulfilled relationships, with Oona and Sylvie. That maps with much of Salinger’s life. His second marriage ended in divorce after eleven years. He had at least two more brief relationships before marrying for the third time in 1988, a marriage that lasted until he passed in 2010.

Finally, we are left wondering what will happen to Holden Caulfield. Will the manuscript in the satchel see the light of day? We know the answer to that, but the end of the novel leaves us wondering what else that Salinger wrote has yet to see daylight. His last published work was in 1965 but he continued writing throughout his life. We’re left wondering whether we’ve seen Salinger’s best.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher via LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers Program. The opinions I have expressed are my own.