Johnny One-Eye: A Tale of the American Revolution [NOOK Book]


"A rollicking tale."—Stacy Schiff, New York Times Book Review, Editors' Choice

Johnny One-Eye is bringing about the rediscovery of one of the most "singular and remarkable [careers] in American literature" (Jonathan Yardley, Washington Post Book World). In this picaresque tour de force that reanimates Revolutionary Manhattan through the story of double agent John Stocking, the bastard son of a whorehouse madam and possibly George Washington, Jerome Charyn has given us one of ...
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Johnny One-Eye: A Tale of the American Revolution

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"A rollicking tale."—Stacy Schiff, New York Times Book Review, Editors' Choice

Johnny One-Eye is bringing about the rediscovery of one of the most "singular and remarkable [careers] in American literature" (Jonathan Yardley, Washington Post Book World). In this picaresque tour de force that reanimates Revolutionary Manhattan through the story of double agent John Stocking, the bastard son of a whorehouse madam and possibly George Washington, Jerome Charyn has given us one of the most memorable historical novels in years. As Johnny seeks to unlock the mystery of his birth and grapples with his allegiances, he falls in love with Clara, a gorgeous, green-eyed octoroon, the most coveted harlot of Gertrude's house. The wild parade of characters he encounters includes Benedict Arnold, the Howe brothers, "Sir Billy" and "Black Dick," and a manipulative Alexander Hamilton.Not since John Barth's The Sotweed Factor and Gore Vidal's Burr has a novel so dramatically re-created America's historical beginnings. Reading group guide included.
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Editorial Reviews

Wendy Smith
As he has done in such previous novels as The Franklin Scare and Captain Kidd, and in his heavily fictionalized memoirs, The Black Swan and Bronx Boy, Charyn uses American history as a setting for fable and mythic figures. It's not that Johnny One-Eye is factually inaccurate; indeed, it spotlights such neglected aspects of Revolutionary history as the painful dilemma of New York's African Americans, abused and used by redcoats and rebels alike. But the author is not trying to give us a coherent, blow-by-blow chronicle of New York City, 1776 to 1783. Instead, he captures the lunacy and grandeur of an epic period when everything was in flux and up for grabs in sentences that hum with the blunt yet soaring cadences of 18th-century prose. Readers may feel slightly detached from the travails of Charyn's characters, who are vividly rather than deeply imagined, but anyone who relishes adventurous fiction will enjoy watching this risk-taking author strut along the high wire.
—The Washington Post
Stacy Schiff
The good news is that what Johnny One-Eye lacks in narrative momentum it handily supplies in antics and atmosphere. Here are the founding fathers out on a lark; here is the Revolution waged at the gaming table and in the bedroom. If Johnny One-Eye occasionally comes across as "Johnny One-Note," it's a small price to pay for an uncommonly unbuttoned George Washington. Charyn hasn't woven a taut narrative from a lurching plot. What he has done is to create a rollicking tale in which—true to the dictates of the genre—our hapless rogue makes good. That he should do so in Washington's "runt of a republic" isn't such a stretch. When you think about it, the American Revolution was something of a picaresque too.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly

This remarkable novel unfolds in a Manhattan split asunder by the Revolutionary War, where "every street had been turned into a ditch." Here we follow the picaresque adventures of John Stocking, a double agent who has a talent for placing himself in jeopardy, and Charyn traces, at a breathless pace, his adventures on both sides of the Revolution, beginning with Gen. George Washington sparing Stocking from the gallows. With a superb eye for detail, Charyn shows Stocking's efforts to help the Revolutionary Army's ever-eroding hold on the city while coping with the machinations of the British Army's Howe brothers, Sir Billy and Lord Admiral Richard, as they execute their assault on the rebel forces. At the same time, Stocking is engaged in a journey to discover who his father is. Charyn provides a stunning gallery of characters, including an elegantly treacherous Alexander Hamilton; Stocking's guardian angel, the outrageous madam Gertrude Jennings; Gertrude's star prostitute, the exotic Clara; and Benedict Arnold, whom John calls "the one hero I've ever had." Charyn's command of time and place is masterful: the reader can practically smell the gunpowder that suffuses the war-torn city. As a kaleidoscopic view of a tumultuous era, the book deserves to be spoken about in the same breath as E.L. Doctorow's Ragtime. (Feb.)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Library Journal

In a rollicking tale that is equal parts Tom Jones, Tristram Shandy, and Gulliver's Travels, award-winning novelist Charyn (The Green Lantern) vividly re-creates revolutionary Manhattan through the eyes of young double agent John Stocking, aka Johnny One-Eye. In Zelig-like fashion, Stocking saves Benedict Arnold from death, consoles George Washington by regaling the colonel with fairy tales, befriends the British commanders Sir William Howe and his brother, "Black Dick" Howe, and falls in love with one of the prostitutes in the brothel he calls home. Much like the foundlings of Charles Dickens's and Henry Fielding's tales, the picaresque hero Stocking moves from episode to episode, seeking the story of his birth only to find he is the illegitimate son of his protector, the madame of Holy Ground, a famous Manhattan bordello. Through the eyes of his young hero, Charyn gives us a glimpse of the Revolutionary War as lived not by the soldiers and the politicians but by those whose homes, jobs, and lives were completely turned upside down by the war. Highly recommended. [See Prepub Alert, LJ10/1/07.]
—Henry L. Carrigan Jr.

Kirkus Reviews
From Charyn (Raised by Wolves: The Turbulent Art and Times of Quentin Tarantino, 2006, etc.), a tale of intrigue, spying, George Washington, Benedict Arnold, Manhattan prostitutes, a castrato and a one-eye double agent-in other words, almost more history, character and action than can be contained in a single novel. The eponymous narrator, John Stocking, grows up in and around a brothel in New York City and is both bewildered and curious about who his father is. He knows his mother is Gert, the fiery madam in charge of the "nuns" at the facility (located in a Red Light district called "Holy Ground"), but the mystery of his paternity remains for much of the story. (For a while he's led to believe that George Washington is not just the father of his country.) The novel opens with John at the age of 17, seemingly in danger of being hanged, but Washington takes pity on him. Shortly afterward, John finds out that he was not actually in real danger, and from this point the novel becomes a picaresque adventure as the reader follows John's tortuous path through the American Revolution. He falls in love with Clara, a ravishing enchantress who's the most lusted-after woman in Gert's stable. One of the most interesting aspects of the novel is its portrayal of George Washington, far removed from the thin-lipped, dour patriot whose image dominates our view of the Revolution. Here he is a larger than life (literally-he's portrayed as a giant) and fully human character who's as concerned with the goings-on at Gwen's as he is with Valley Forge. Other historical personages flit through the book with varying degrees of intensity: George Washington's secretary, the diminutive and guileful AlexanderHamilton; "Sir Billy" Howe, commander of the British army; his brother Admiral Lord Richard Howe (aka "Black Dick"); and most significantly, Benedict Arnold, either a hero or a patriot, depending on whose side you're on. A crackling good epic, both comic and bawdy.
Entertainment Weekly
“Bawdy, savage, and tender.”
“A breathless and poignant tour de force.”
Michael Chabon
“Jerome Charyn is one of the most important writers in American literature.”
Jonathan Lethem
“Jerome Charyn is merely one of our finest writers, with a polymorphous imagination and crack comic timing.”
The Barnes & Noble Review
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 Washington in this new novel, an audacious attempt at reimagining the Spirit of '76 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 was published 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. --Paul Wilner

A member of the National Book Critics Circle, Paul Wilner is a contributor to the San Francisco Chronicle and Los Angeles Times book review sections, the online magazine, Publishers Weekly, and the New York Times "Arts and Leisure" section, among other publications.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780393067811
  • Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 2/17/2008
  • Sold by: Barnes & Noble
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 480
  • Sales rank: 607,449
  • Product dimensions: 5.00 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 1.00 (d)
  • File size: 2 MB

Meet the Author

Jerome Charyn, a master of lyrical farce and literary ventriloquism, published his first novel in 1964. The author of Johnny One-Eye, The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson, and dozens of other acclaimed novels and nonfiction works, he lives in New York and Paris.
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Customer Reviews

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  • Posted June 1, 2011

    more from this reviewer

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    Even with a one-eyed account, Johnny offers a detailed glimpse of the grueling birth of a nation

    Johnny One-Eye is the Forrest Gump of the American Revolution. He's a fictitious character whose life becomes intertwined with the most illustrious personages in the land from George Washington to Alexander Hamilton. As the son of Manhattan's savviest madame, he lives in a brothel among prostitutes. Yet throughout the war, he seamlessly mingles with all classes in society from Prince Paul, the leader of the city's Little Africa, to his disgraced former general, Benedict Arnold. His ability to adapt to any situation places him in a precarious position as both the British and American forces try to recruit him as a spy. He walks a perilous line trying to serve two masters while first and foremost looking out for himself.

    The travails of his love life tend to complicate matters even further. As a eye patch wearing, Quasimodo Lothario, he is hopelessly besotted with his childhood friend, Clara, who is now in the employ of his mother. As she flits from one customer's bed to another, she ridicules Johnny One-Eye's advances and mocks his romantic pursuit. Spurned by his true love, he turns to the comfort of the voluptuous mistress of General William Howe, the British commander in charge of the occupation of New York. Needless to say, Sir William flies into a jealous rage upon discovering he is sharing his lover with a one-eyed rogue.

    The book itself is broken into seven sections by year from 1776-1783. Each begins with a preface written from George Washington's point of view. Johnny One-Eye shares the spotlight with the commander in chief because as the narrative progresses the question of his paternity begins to point in the general's direction. This illegitimate scamp from the gutter could, in fact, be America's first son. The two work on building a tenuous relationship as they try to watch out for each other in the midst of dangerous plots and intrigues.

    Charyn succeeds in creating a George Washington who is a fully developed character. He is not the one-dimensional, mythological figure who cannot tell a lie. Instead, he is a military commander who makes mistakes, and he is passionately in love with a red-haired courtesan, Johnny's mother. In the novel's best scene, these two characteristics combine at his beloved's whorehouse. In his foolhardiness, he knowingly walks into a trap by responding to General Howe's invitation to a card game. All sides hold their breath as Washington skillfully maneuvers through the game relying on his wits to save his life.

    Charyn painstakingly reconstructs the Revolutionary setting. Through extensive research and attention to detail, he masterfully brings to life the British occupation of New York City. The island teems with a volatile mixture of Hessian mercenaries, British aristocracy, rebel spies and Loyalist merchants. The rich feast as the poor starve. Johnny One-Eye, himself, depicts the various atrocities of the time. He endures a tar and feathering, imprisonment aboard a fetid naval vessel and banishment from the colonies. Yet like the young nation, he overcomes all obstacles in order to fashion his own destiny.

    Overall, even with a one-eyed account, Johnny offers a detailed glimpse of the grueling birth of a nation.

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