Grifters, gangs, vamps, and lost souls pursue gritty lives in “the brick wilderness of the Bronx” in this collection of tales by a veteran storyteller and native of the New York borough.
The opening line, “Howell was still on the lam,” establishes a noirish tone and diction that will appear often, beginning with this tale of a man who travels the U.S. conning widows until he returns to his Bronx hometown and rediscovers an old flame. The time of the collection spans the postwar era, when New York gangs danced into West Side Story, through the sad days of the 1950s, after a Robert Moses highway split Charyn’s boyhood turf, uprooted neighborhoods, and led, in the 1970s, to the desolation of the South Bronx. Historical figures enter these little fictions, just as admitted fabrications drifted into two Charyn childhood memoirs (Bronx Boy, 2002; The Black Swan, 2000). A Diane Arbus type named Dee tries to capture in a photo the soul of the 8-foot-9-inch Eddie Carmel. Mobster Frank Costello moves in the background of a trio of stories featuring a good-looking kid who becomes a male model (“I was 15 when Rosenzweig discovered me at the Frick Collection”). In another trio, a Manhattan woman discovers where her sister vanished to at age 5 and retrieves her from a “home for alcoholic movie stars and mental patients.” Charyn’s staccato style is full of jolts, surprising observations, and turns of phrase. It works well with the rough struggle for survival and success in “the wild lands of the Bronx.” And some stories soar: in particular, the troubled romance between a plumber and an Irish nurse in “Major Leaguer,” which artfully assembles such Bronx icons as street gangs, the drug trade, Robert Moses, and the New York Yankees.
Charyn calls the work “no sentimental journey through my own traces as a child,” yet there’s a writer’s deep affection here for a world full of color and character.