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In Johnny One-Eye, Jerome Charyn has used history and rumors of the time, to build a story of heroes, a tale of love and revenge, and of the difficulties and possibilities of the revolution. He has used actual events and characters in history and peopled it with imaginary characters and events of his own.
Drawing from dark times of revolution, Charyn has given us a novel set during the eight years of the revolution, a gritty and difficult time. He uses Johnny as a character and narrator, which ads a different and unique take on the times. Johnny is a young man raised in a whorehouse and a double agent as many were during those times. He first comes to our attention when caught trying to poison Washington’s soup. Johnny is relatively educated and often works as a scribe, and it is during one of these missions, scribing for Benedict Arnold that he loses his eye.
Johnny seems to lead a charmed life, getting in and out of danger while balancing his confusion and concerns about the war. He loves his king, and yet now that he knows him and understands him a bit better, he is drawn to George Washington. There are also the rumors that he may be the illegitimate son of George Washington, a rumor that seems to keep him alive. Both sides have a bit of a soft spot for him, and yet there are those too that want him dead. He is in love what Clara an octoroon whore whom he grew up with and it is obvious to all in the know that the Madame is his mother. This all plays a part in this story and his mother is set as the other woman in Washington’s life.
Through the difficulties and avenues traveled by Johnny, we learn of many of the characters of the time of the revolution, notables such as Hamilton, Arnold, General Clinton, King George III and Washington himself. Set mainly in Manhattan and surrounding areas we read of the skirmishes and problems encountered by Washington and his crew. We learn about the courageous African stevedores and slaves that lay their lives on the line to help make this a new country free from England’s control. Full of both darkness and lightness, it is also full of real history and information as well as riddled with fiction.
Charyn has taken us to a time in history, when America was just becoming a new nation. His descriptions of the times and events both real and imagined, take you inside of the pain and anguish of the characters involved. You feel as though you are there, the descriptions of the winter scenes with Washington and his men such when they left bloodied trails because of lack of money for warmer clothing and shoes, left a lasting impression on me. While I read much of this same information during history classes in school, it was dryer and less real. Charyn makes it real, you can feel their pain and also feel their love and adoration of their leader. It is what keeps them fighting in the harshest and worst of conditions.
Johnny One-Eye is an engaging character that creates more of a story, and gives us an opportunity to see the unfolding of our history from a different and unique perspective. His involvement with both the women of the whorehouse as well as his own bits of intrigue keep it interesting, giving us both a more in-depth look at reality, and offering us a different perspective of events.
Jerome Charyn brings us wonderful fictional characters and weaves them into actual events in history, setting encounters with actual historical figures, which creates an interesting fictional history that reads like reality. Often truth is stranger than fiction, and while the added characters come from imagination, the truth of the times only adds a darker more sinister cast. The character of Johnny adds a bit of humor to a story that could be quite daunting.
If you love historical fiction, you will enjoy Johnny One-Eye. It is riddled with the actual events in history and is a different and more mercurial look at history. It is a view as evidenced by a young man, in the middle of a time of turmoil. This would be a great book for a reading group or book club.
About the Author
New York Newsday hailed Charyn as “a contemporary American Balzac,” and the Los Angeles Times described him as “absolutely unique among American writers.”
Since the 1964 release of Charyn’s first novel, Once Upon a Droshky, he has published 30 novels, three memoirs, eight graphic novels, two books about film, short stories, plays and works of non-fiction. Two of his memoirs were named New York Times Book of the Year. Charyn has been a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction. He received the Rosenthal Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and has been named Commander of Arts and Letters by the French Minister of Culture.
Charyn was Distinguished Professor of Film Studies at the American University of Paris until he left teaching in 2009.
In addition to his writing and teaching, Charyn is a tournament table tennis player, once ranked in the top 10 percent of players in France. Noted novelist Don DeLillo called Charyn’s book on table tennis, Sizzling Chops & Devilish Spins, “The Sun Also Rises of ping-pong.”
Charyn lives in Paris and New York City.
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