Sunday, August 30, 2009

Review: "Johnny One-Eye," Jerome Charyn

By Paul Carrier

If Lewis Carroll and Mark Twain had collaborated on a novel about the American Revolution, there's a very good chance they would have concocted something much like Johnny One-Eye.

This intoxicating and comic look at the Revolutionary War centers on the picaresque adventures of the eponymous Johnny One-Eye (aka John Stocking) a half-blind double agent whose loyalty seems to change with the winds of war.

Charyn’s novel creates a bawdy, dream-like world in which George Washington, Benedict Arnold, Alexander Hamilton and various British and French military leaders cavort like phantoms who are simultaneously recognizable and utterly foreign.

Most of the action takes place in New York, where Washington and his small, poorly trained and inadequately equipped army initially await the inevitable arrival of a massive British force under the command of the brothers Howe - one an admiral, the other a general. New York remains the principal setting even after the British capture the city.

Manhattan is awash in spies and whores, with the latter plying their trade in a neighborhood of brothels called Holy Ground, so named because of its proximity to St. Paul’s Chapel. Charyn explains, in an author’s note, that Manhattan really had a red-light district by that name during the 18th century.

The most famous bordello in Holy Ground is the Queen’s Yard, where owner Gertrude Jennings hovers over her brood of prostitutes, who are known, appropriately enough for the setting, as Gertrude’s Nuns.

The star of Gertrude’s enterprise, and the love of Johnny’s life, is Clara, a blond, green-eyed “octoroon.”

Johnny narrates this tale of his “unremarkable life” in an appealingly disjointed style. His fanciful depiction of the American Revolution is bemusing, preposterous and yet, somehow, credible. Despite the comic overtones, Washington emerges as a principled and courageous leader, albeit one with a conflicted attitude toward slavery.

Adding to the novel's charm is Charyn's fondness for wondrous words, such as “homunculus” and “raspcallions.” Prince Paul, the leader of Manhattan’s impoverished black neighborhood and a secondary character, is described as “palavering” with other folks. A knave is not a knave in Johnny One-Eye, but a “varlet.”

If the magic that Charyn creates were the norm in historical fiction, perhaps more readers would develop a taste for the genre. In the hands of someone as talented as Charyn, the past is a bizarre world of surreal splendor.