Even for someone who has been as prolific as Jerome Charyn over the course of a more than 50-year career, it’s a bit unusual to have two books appear within five months of each other. What’s not surprising is that In the Shadow of King Saul, (Bellevue Literary Press, August), is an essay collection, and The Perilous Adventures of the Cowboy King, coming from Liveright in January, is a novel. Charyn has always moved comfortably between fiction and nonfiction—indeed, he says, “I don’t see any difference. It all begins with the music of the sentence. I think in melodies: music is very important to me, the meaning is in the music of the sentences, and I don’t think for me there is any meaning outside that.”
Charyn has been blurring the boundaries between fact and fiction as far back as his trilogy of memoirs—The Dark Lady from Belorusse (1997), Black Swan (2000) and Bronx Boy (2002)—which he freely acknowledged at the time were “the product of imaginative recreation.” He has continued on this path in his most recent novels: The Perilous Adventures of the Cowboy King, which depicts Theodore Roosevelt from childhood to the threshold of his presidency, follows The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson (2010), I Am Abraham: A Novel of Lincoln and the Civil War (2014) and Jerzy (as in Kosinski, 2017) in taking as its protagonist a historical figure.
All of them are written in the first-person except for Jerzy. The enigmatic Kosinski, a man of many masks, was better captured from multiple outside perspectives, but in general Charyn considers it part of his mission to let his real-life characters speak directly to the reader. “People chided me because I tried to write in Dickinson’s voice,” he recalls. “One reviewer said I was a gravedigger, digging up the dead.”
“Grave robber,” interjects his partner Lenore Riegel. “When someone says that about your guy, you remember the exact words!” Riegel, an attorney and television producer, is an attentive listener as Charyn, lean and craggy at 81, muses over his life and career in their West Village apartment.
“But she missed the point,” continues Charyn, referring to the reviewer. “The idea is, if you had a time machine, you would want to bring back certain people; this is my way of bringing back the music of her voice. Dickinson is our greatest poet—as much as I like Whitman, I can understand him; I can’t understand Dickinson, the way I can’t understand Shakespeare. Those are the two writers who bewilder me, because they make such leaps of language and imagination.”
Teddy Roosevelt was a lot more comprehensible. “I always had the option of doing it in the third person, but as I read about him, I slowly began to find his voice. I do a lot of research, because I’m always looking for details. I’m not looking for anything but details, actually, but sometimes you have to read a whole book for just one detail! What I loved most was Roosevelt’s relationship with his father, because my relationship with my father was so tenuous and difficult.” (This fraught bond is dissected in several essays in In the Shadow of King Saul.) “Theodore Roosevelt Senior was an extraordinary man: he founded museums and homes for newspaper boys, he was involved in helping the poor; it was much more important to him than his wealth. Teddy Roosevelt internalized the person his father was, because he never wanted to disappoint his father or do anything he would disapprove of.”
As The Perilous Adventures of the Cowboy King progresses, however, we see Roosevelt the crusading reformer becoming more of a politician and a showman, a trend that culminates in a fascinating and bizarre hallucination, on the train taking him to be sworn in as president, in which he imagines himself as an entertainer in Buffalo Bill Cody’s circus. Roosevelt is subject to hallucinations throughout the novel, as was Lincoln in I, Abraham. “Our waking life is nowhere near as important as our dreamscape,” Charyn explains. “This was a way to take his reality and twist it around; you could call it a hallucination, you could call it a waking dream, but whatever you call it, it has its own poetry, which is very different from the harsh reality of the world Roosevelt lived in. Your imagination can shape it in a way you can’t shape actual events, where you’re in a straitjacket of facts. The hallucination allows you to conjure up a different kind of world.”
The world conjured up by In the Shadow of King Saul is one of “Silence & Song,” as Charyn puts it in the introductory essay. “Sometimes the song is within the silence,” he comments. “In fiction, it starts with Hemingway, the great Hemingway of those wonderful early stories. What’s so important about him are not only the sentences, but the spaces between them; the sentences are islands, so when you jump from one to the other you make a tremendous leap. My feeling is, the language is really in the silences, the spaces, the void. King Saul was uncelebrated because he didn’t have a voice, whereas David had song; David was beloved, and Saul was the unloved one—I think that’s where writing begins, with un-love rather than love.”
Growing up in a poor Bronx neighborhood where “book” meant “comic book” and art meant nothing, Charyn found a lifeline in literature. He was a top student at Music and Art High School and went on to Columbia, where he got “the best education anyone could. You were taught by all these extraordinary people—Lionel Trilling, Mark van Doren—and you worshipped before the word. For me, literature was holy; it was a holy act to become a writer. I never thought about commerce or about publishing; it was about learning my craft. I lived in one room that didn’t even have a view, it faced a fire escape, and I never for one moment felt deprived. It was a luxury to be able to sit there and write all day, a holy act. I don’t know why I believed that, but I still do.”
He feels fortunate to have two editors who share his fierce commitment: Robert Weil, editor-in-chief and publishing director of Liveright, and Erika Goldman, publisher and editorial director of Bellevue. “I call Bob the Captain Ahab of publishing!” Charyn says with a laugh. “He searches for an impossible perfection. You know what the publishing scene is; he believed in my work in spite of what anyone else said, he wanted to publish me, and he’s been a wonderful editor. Erika doesn’t even care about sales; she publishes exactly what she wants. She’s a great reader, and she fights for her writers. So does Bob. He’s ferocious; if he wants something, he’s going to get it. Our first contract was in 2008 for Johnny One-Eye [a novel about the American Revolution]. He told me he loved the book, and then his notes on the manuscript were longer than the book! Imagine if he hadn’t loved it! I’ve been lucky with my editors, and both Liveright and Bellevue are extraordinary places to publish.”