Brooklyn is dead. Long live the Bronx! In Bitter Bronx, Jerome Charyn returns to his roots and leads the literary renaissance of an oft-overlooked borough in this surprising new collection.
In Bitter Bronx, one of our most gifted and original novelists depicts a world before and after modern urban renewal destroyed the gritty sanctity of a land made famous by Ruth, Gehrig, and Joltin' Joe.
Bitter Bronx is suffused with the texture and nostalgia of a lost time and place, combining a keen eye for detail with Jerome Charyn's lived experience. These stories are informed by a childhood growing up near that middle-class mecca, the Grand Concourse; falling in love with three voluptuous librarians at a public library in the Lower Depths of the South Bronx; and eating at Mafia-owned restaurants along Arthur Avenue's restaurant row, amid a "land of deprivation…where fathers trundled home…with a monumental sadness on their shoulders."
In "Lorelei," a lonely hearts grifter returns home and finds his childhood sweetheart still living in the same apartment house on the Concourse; in "Archy and Mehitabel" a high school romance blossoms around a newspaper comic strip; in "Major Leaguer" a former New York Yankee confronts both a gang of drug dealers and the wreckage that Robert Moses wrought in his old neighborhood; and in three interconnected stories"Silk & Silk," "Little Sister," and "Marla"Marla Silk, a successful Manhattan attorney, discovers her father's past in the Bronx and a mysterious younger sister who was hidden from her, kept in a fancy rest home near the Botanical Garden. In these stories and others, the past and present tumble together in Charyn's singular and distinctly "New York prose, street-smart, sly, and full of lurches" (John Leonard, New York Times).
Throughout it all looms the "master builder" Robert Moses, a man who believed he could "save" the Bronx by building a highway through it, dynamiting whole neighborhoods in the process. Bitter Bronx stands as both a fictional eulogy for the people and places paved over by Moses' expressway and an affirmation of Charyn's "brilliant imagination" (Elizabeth Taylor, Chicago Tribune).
|Publisher:||Liveright Publishing Corporation|
|Edition description:||New Edition|
|Product dimensions:||5.60(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.00(d)|
About the Author
Jerome Charyn's stories have appeared in The Atlantic, Paris Review, American Scholar, Epoch, Narrative, Ellery Queen, and other magazines. His most recent novel is I Am Abraham. He lived for many years in Paris and currently resides in Manhattan.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
For those with Bronx in your soul, stories of mystery and romance to read at the beach.
I couldn't stop reading these stories and I wish there were more than thirteen! Each and every one is filled with mystery, intrigue, romance—and they're all extremely well written thanks to the natural talent of a brilliant author like Jerome Charyn, a Bronx native himself. People who live, have lived, or have never lived in the Bronx will feel the environment he describes so well with their senses, their minds, and especially their hearts. Each character is on a different journey, but Charyn emphasizes the hardships they all have in common, uniting them as a joined force against the struggles of race, class and poverty that are out to tear them down. BITTER BRONX is an entertaining reading experience outside the norm, a mix of historical fiction and social commentary. It's a true gem that I can't recommend highly enough.
What gave me an immediate sense of how the Bronx came burning down was Jerome Charyn's reference to a pack of wild dogs that roamed through Crotona Park in the aftermath of the greatest upheaval to ever hit the borough. There's even a rumor that they mauled to death a small child. Later, a prominent gang adopted that vicious canine emblem to grace its bags of heroin. And that in a nutshell sums up the disheartening tone of BITTER BRONX, it's fall into destruction and chaos that no one could stop. All that's left for Charyn to do is lament what once was of this "brick wilderness." And there's no telling symbol than the most recognizable fixture of the Bronx—Yankee Stadium. Or should I say, the NEW Yankee Stadium, the mecca by which all success is measured. In "Major Leaguer," the leader of the Crotona Dogs invites superintendent Will Johnson to join him for a game in his box seats. The gangbanger remembers his Papi talking about watching Will play center field for the Yankees, and how proud he was of Will's glorious achievement as a native of the Bronx. But Will's not so proud. He only played one game as a Yankee, and he didn't even get a hit. The nostalgia factor rings false for Will. He doesn't believe himself to be worthy of any accolades, and he's not going to kowtow to the Crotona Dogs. He has too much pride for that. Charyn, a native of the Bronx himself, nails the vibe of the place. You can feel the monotonous movement of the subway in, "I had to ride the local in and out of the Bronx. Each stop was a kind of purgatory. Freeman Street. Simpson Street. Intervale Avenue…" You can feel the rot and ruin in, "The Art Deco palaces along the Grand Concourse have been refurbished, but the blight will never really go away." You can feel the eminent sense of danger in, "Paradise Road had sharpshooters reigning from the roofs. The drug lords had put them there. But after a while the sharpshooters were bored to death and would pick off children and old men." It's no wonder Charyn compares the broken landscape of the Bronx to bombed-out Belfast, and why he's reluctant to revisit his memories in print, no doubt because they clash so painfully with what he finds there today. It's heartbreaking to see one's home turned into something unrecognizable. It's sad that a fresh wind of change has never come to the Bronx, especially when New York is a city that's ever changing, dashing dreams, while raising others up. But one thing is certain. Despite its many flaws, the Bronx did one thing right. It gave birth to a literary talent like Jerome Charyn.
With a title like BITTER BRONX, there has to be a villain. And that man, according to Jerome Charyn, is Robert Moses, the man who cut the borough in two. He came in his white hard hat, posing for pictures and shoving his expressway project down people's throats. He didn't know how much long-lasting damage he was doing at the time, believing he was a savior figure to them. But what he did was create a irreparable rift through the seam of intersecting cultures that continues to grow even wider. Moses is the antagonist that ties the collection of thirteen short stories together. Generations of Bronx residents are the sacrificial victim to his short-sighted legacy. In "Major Leaguer" the impact of the Cross Bronx Expressway (built from 1948-1972) lives on, "And the heartless din of traffic from that highway had been ringing in Will's ears now for a good quarter of a century." It becomes something that has to be endured, long after the tall man, who handed out lollipops to yesterday's children, departed without having to justify his actions to the adults of today. Charyn goes on to blame Moses for the Bronx falling into a state of "permanent recession." He's the harbinger of nightmares for those who regret calling the place home. Charyn even likens the highway to a not so silent character, "a phantom that crawls between the lines." And the most perplexing thing is—Moses didn't even benefit financially from his idea. He didn't get rich by bulldozing these neighborhoods. He had a noble aim, a charitable ambition, that ended up sullying his reputation for generations to come. It's amazing that one man could wreak so much havoc in such a short period of time. But thanks to him, the melting pot bubbled over. The drug lords control the turf now, forging sharp divides between all differing races and ethnicities. There's a pecking order to the lineup that continues to shift based on whoever's on top of the totem pole at any given moment. It makes for a very unstable environment, one cops won't even patrol anymore. The residents are left to fend for themselves against the outbursts of violence and petty extortion. Sometimes, the moral of the story is: It's better to have left things alone rather than to have meddled with them at all. The North Bronx and the South Bronx should be united as one, not forever divided into two. The aching rib is slow to heal, probably because it never will.
The simplicity of Jerome Charyn's sentence structure carries with it so much power. You can tell he chooses the words he wants in a painstaking fashion in order to convey the emotion he's after. How does he conjure the horror of a homeless shelter? "It was like living in an ocean of unwashed feet." Not many writers are capable of doing that. It's something only the greats are known for. The first name that comes to mind is Hemingway and his no frills style. That type of writer makes writing a craft. It's just not done anymore, or done right. It's nice to see someone like Charyn take up the banner and herald it into the future. BITTER BRONX is a compilation of short stories with a multitude of crisscrossing themes, published separately at one time or another from 2006 through 2013 in various literary periodicals. The unifying thread is the tension between men and women with the shadow of mental illness hovering over "the brick wasteland" of New York's northernmost borough. For Charyn, love fails because the mind can't handle the full implications of it. Women are institutionalized. Men slog through life, coping with depression. Yet men and women can't seem to live without each other, despite the inevitable heartache and pain any potential union is bound to cause. Charyn gets specific when it comes to what the human heart desires. He labels the upside of love as "perfect passion" with jealousy and violence as its inevitable downside. Attraction is coupled with confusion until the dividing line between the two is no longer distinguishable. Take for example, "the bluest eyes in all of Manhattan." They come with the warning, "Never touch the boss's daughter." There's a push and pull throughout that makes for an bittersweet blend of longing and despair. Charyn shows how the two are linked by having fun with a kooky assortment of fiercely independent ladies and the downtrodden men who try to win them over. At the heart of it, no one wants to be in the Bronx. It's the last outpost for many. Some never left. Others arrive because they have nowhere else to go. It's not the ideal setting for love to thrive. It's harsh, brutal, draining. Past success is quickly forgotten. Future ambitions are easily thwarted. The present is a no man's land of get what you can get, while you can get it. There are no long term commitments when surviving into the next day comes with no guarantee. Charyn captures this sense of anxious inertia brilliantly. The Bronx wants to move ahead. It wants to rediscover itself. But it can't. And for now, the best Charyn can do is make it happen in the pages of his book.
If you've ever been to the Bronx. go home in these stories. If you've missed this wonderful terrible place, read Bitter Bronx. You'll be enriched and enchanted - with intrigue, mystery and romance - and just great writing. I didn't grow up in the Bronx, but my brother did. My half-brother. I was the only child I knew whose father had been married before, unheard of in our Westchester community, where daddies went to work in 'the City' and mommies stayed home (although kids didn't - we were told to "go out and play; be home by dark.") But on many weekends I journeyed to the exotic world of the Grand Concourse, to visit my brother's little apartment, where I watched in awe when his mother, a Russian queen named Clara, uncurled braids wrapped around her head to brush black curls that fell to the ground. Relatives on her side of the family dropped by to stare at me - the child of her ex-husband's indiscretion - but they were kind and gave me bliny, caviar, bubliki, honey, and tea in a samovar, and took me on neighborhood walks to the synagogue and musicales. I had almost forgotten those days until I picked up Jerome Charyn's Bitter Bronx. When I read the stories, I felt like a child again, peeking from behind heavy curtains to watch rituals from far away and long ago.