Tell me what you throw into the garbage, and I will tell you who you are. Jerome Charyn takes two of the champion wastelands of our time--Vietnam and the grimmer reaches of New York's Lower East Side--and superimposes one upon the other. His purpose, in "War Cries Over Avenue C," is to construct blurred images for blurred times.
The characters in this surreal novel of intrigue drift back and forth between the interrogation centers, the hospitals, the back-alley black markets of the Vietnam War and the present-day derelict and drug-infested chunk of Manhattan where the avenues, instead of names or numbers, run from A to D.
It is an apt framework for Charyn's theme that degradation abroad and at home are linked. His Vietnam War is a Catch-22 retort of cold slaughter and feverish profiteering. His Lower East Side is a wild, mythic country like that Sam Shepard play, where gang leaders and master spies wheel and deal and kill for symbolic domination.
"Christ stopped at Avenue A," the book's foreword pronounces. "The traffic seems different out on the street. Cars move slower on Avenue A. You could die whistling and might not meet a Checker cab. You've entered Indian country without even knowing it."
Charyn's fictional vision of our times is a titanic buying and selling, with drugs as the treasure to be fought, traded and betrayed over. Wars, politics, the arts, personal relationships, are marginal instrumentalities. Every human quality and attachment has been leached out. The characters in "War Cries" are frenetic shadows. When holes are shot into them, as frequently they are, it is like the mayhem that takes place in film cartoons. When they make love, it is like space modules docking.
The two central shadows are middle-level players in the hallucinatory world-game. They have a human past. She was Sarah Fishman, a plain but buxom New Jersey girl in love with and engaged to Howie Biedersbill, who is flaky but bright.
They drift apart and reappear in Vietnam. She is head nurse at a secret CIA-run hospital, where she wears two pistols to fend off suitors and to limit, where she can, the torturing of the Viet Cong patients by their interrogators. Howie is a veteran of a series of black operations, and wounded so repeatedly that, when he scratches his head, shrapnel flakes fall out like dandruff.
Albert, a former Dartmouth professor and intelligence operative, sets them up after the war to maintain a kind of safe house in an abandoned New York synagogue. She is Saigon Sarah, the Tiger Lady of Avenue C. He has become Teacher, executor of a variety of violent missions.
Albert is a condottiere in the drug wars. He uses his Vietnam veterans to run coups in Bolivia and to mow down his New York rivals. These include a gang of emigre Russian Jews in Brighton Beach and a Latino band run by the fabulously rich Capablanca. The CIA is an active player; so are a variety of U.S. intelligence agencies; so are the KGB and the KGB's own Soviet rivals.
Players flit back and forth, changing sides. Most are double or triple agents. Art dealers and publishers are instruments or masters of the drug and spy networks. George, a Montagnard chieftain, floats into New York, kills a player or two, and floats back to Ho Chi Minh City, where he shows old French films in a decrepit movie house. Konstantin, a Soviet agent, divides his time between New York, where he works both with and against Albert, and Vietnam, where he runs a racket based on black market soap and Mont Blanc fountain pens.
The lovers are killers and vice versa. The cold warriors are racketeers and vice versa. The intellectuals are thugs and vice versa. The chieftains and their knights do battle under a variety of artistic devices. Albert fights under the banner of Rimbaud. Teacher is sworn to Henry James; and when Capablanca briefly captures him, he holds him upside down out of a window until he confesses that Gabriel Garcia Marquez is the better writer.
In a world like Orwell's spreading chestnut tree--"where I sold you and you sold me"--nothing keeps its own value, Charyn is saying. Everything is degraded: not only love and honor and human nature, but vice itself. The KGB, the CIA, the street killers are simply spin-offs from the power of a vial of white powder and the millions of dollars it commands.
Charyn's paradoxes are corrosive and often witty. He organizes his message in commanding fashion. But it tends to strangle his novel. Archimedes needed a neutral spot to rest his lever before he could lift the world with it. Orwell needed his George Smith. Charyn needs a human sensibility or two and doesn't produce it.
All his players are shadow players but even shadows require a source of light. His mystifications and reverses are a striptease to which nobody has fought to invite a body. The characters and their adventures are so consistently not what they seem that, before very long, they become precisely what they seem: clues without mysteries, red herring in a red sea.