Johnny One-Eye: A Tale of the American Revolution

”To be more revolutionary than a nun is our desire, to be secular and intimate as, when sighting a redcoat, you smile and pull the trigger,” Frank O’Hara wrote, in “On Seeing Larry Rivers’ Washington Crossing the Delaware at the Museum of Modern Art.”

“He was reckless as only a principled man can be,” veteran novelist Jerome Charyn writes of George Washington in this new novel, an audacious attempt at reimagining the Spirit of ’76 as told through his protagonist, Johnny One-Eye, a.k.a. John Stocking, who may or may not be the illegitimate progeny of our first president’s imagined dalliance with Gertrude, a madam with a New York brothel populated by “nuns,” as Charyn calls the prostitutes of the times.

A true history junkie, Charyn — whose memoir, Bronx Boy, recapitulates his fascination with Benedict Arnold, Washington, and Aaron Burr — provides similar daring in this attempt to unite the genres of historical fiction, the pleasures of the picaresque, and the desire to make a political statements about, among other things, the neglected role of African-American soldiers in the Revolutionary battles.

It’s an ambitious mess — 480 pages of impossibly tortured plots and subplots that never quite resolve the question of whether it’s a psychological novel about Stocking as he grapples with questions of his own identity or a bodice-ripper about high jinks between the Founding Fathers and their unacknowledged sisters of mercy — although Charyn should certainly be commended for giving it his best shot.

“I have been writing Johnny One-Eye ever since I was nine, a street kid in the South Bronx,” he writes, in an author’s note at the end of this 480-page tome, complete with a “Dramatis Personae” list at the onset of “Principal Players,” “Secondary Players,” “Tertiary Players,” and “Characters Mentioned but Never Seen.”

The new book has been compared with John Barth’s The Sot-weed Factor, an analysis that may seem apt for those who have suffered through Barth’s unwelcome diversions from the modest, successful realism of “The End of the Road” and “The Floating Opera.”

Trying to summarize the novel is probably a fool’s errand, but, in brief, it recounts the adventures of Stocking, a bastard who lives in a Manhattan whorehouse presided over by Gertrude. After attending Kings College (the pre-Revolutionary incarnation of Charyn’s alma mater, Columbia), Stocking serves a stint as secretary to Benedict Arnold, at the time still one of Washington’s top commanders, and loses an eye in one of Arnold’s Canadian battles.

The book begins with Stocking’s first meeting with Washington, after being accused of trying to poison the general’s soup. Washington takes pity on the “lad” — to lapse into the Colonial locutions Charyn is overfond of — and lets him go, after he concocts a story about being a double agent.

Stocking’s largely unrequited crush on Clara, a Dominican-born girl who is one of the “nuns” in Gertrude’s employ, figures prominently in Charyn’s tale; a busy fellow, he also finds the time for erotic play with Elizabeth Loring, the bedmate of Sir William Howe, commander-in-chief of the British Army. He combines all these adventures with a double-dealing game of persuasion: successfully convincing the rebels (or at least Washington) that he is on their side while maintaining the credentials to survive when he falls back into Loyalist hands.

But unlike, say, Fielding’s Tom Jones, it is difficult to muster too much affection for the wily youth; Charyn’s narrative simply has too many threads — and the character development is “flat,” in E. M. Forster’s famous dictum, rather than rounded in the ways we expect if we are to emotionally identify with the characters we are reading about.

One suspects that the Colonial adventures provide the author an escape from his urban shtetl roots. It’s admirable, if somewhat incredible, that he bases an entire novel on the hidden emotional life of George Washington. He’s our nation’s Golden Goy — a figure, wooden teeth and all, who makes, say, Thomas Jefferson look like Lenny Bruce. When Stocking finds out that Washington was not his father, after all, in what seems like yet another plot trick too many, he is reconciled to his real origins — and to “the farmer,” as he calls Washington, too. But Charyn’s hidden sympathies, understandably, always seem to be more with troubled rebels like Arnold, who goes over, at least in this telling, to the Dark Side because of the wiles of a wife in cahoots with the British.

It’s probably no accident that Johnny One-Eye is coming out in an election year. Throughout the narrative, Charyn drops intriguing political parallels. “Harold may have hired you as his puppy, but you live in limbo as far as the Crown is concerned,” Stocking is told when recaptured by the Brits. “Neither soldier nor civilian. For us you are an injured American combatant on perpetual parole.”

“Five months after the great fire of ’76, and our island still sat in its own ruins,” he writes. “I bundled up against the bitter cold of February, while the wind howled off the Hudson, and I scrutinized Canvas Town, the tent city that was spring up in the charred remains near the river. Blacks from Westchester who began to pour into our streets, believing that Sir William would save them, now had nowhere to live.”

Charyn’s prose can soar — and sink. Too many characters seem to talk in the vernacular of a Revolutionary Yoda. “Careful I was,” Stocking says, of his unique position between two worlds. But unlike Bronx Boy, in which Charyn’s voice combined the authenticity of Richard Price with the poetry of Isaac Babel, here the author isn’t careful enough.

Caught between conflicting loyalties and lusts, Stocking describes himself as “a babe in a wilderness of spies.” But too often, this is a story that gets lost in the woods.