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Book Review

Tall Tales of a Junior Bagman in the Bronx

THE BLACK SWAN: A Memoir of the Bronx by Jerome Charyn; St. Martin's / Thomas Dunne $21.95, 192 pages


Over the course of the last four decades, Jerome Charyn has turned his pen to everything from comic strips and children's books to essays on urban life. Most of all, he writes novels. These too range over a wide array of modes and genres, including (but not limited to) science fiction, detective stories, tales of the city (especially his native New York) and even, on occasion, legends of the West ("Darlin' Bill," about Wild Bill Hickok, won an award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters).

Born in the Bronx in 1937, Charyn grew up in the 1940s and 1950s, with a keen interest in popular culture, especially movies. "Mythic" is a word sometimes applied to his oeuvre, which only goes to show that some critics and reviewers are far too eager to find evidence of literary greatness wherever they look. "Mythic" applies to the likes of Sophocles, Milton, Blake, Melville, Joyce. Merely because an author transgresses the boundaries of strict realism to embrace the exaggerated, the surreal or the fantastic does not make him a "mythic" writer. The tradition with which Charyn has a much stronger affinity is that of the tall tale.

Even when it comes to writing a memoir, Charyn cares less about the distinction between fact and fiction than about his need to be colorful. Like the tale-spinners who gave us riverboat man Mike Fink and lumberjack Paul Bunyan, Charyn relies on exaggeration and extravagant claims--or, to put it bluntly, boasting. This is not an endearing trait, even if many of our most prominent writers, from Martin Amis to Erica Jong, seem to imagine it is.

"The Black Swan" is the sequel to Charyn's 1997 memoir, "The Dark Lady from Belorusse." At the heart of both books is a highly romanticized portrait of the author's mother, Faigele, an enterprising Jewish immigrant with a knack for dealing cards. From the photos included in the text, Faigele, although not a bad-looking woman, does not appear to have been Belarus' answer to Greta Garbo. From the testimony of Charyn's text, however, it would seem that the lady combined the physical allure of a young Liz Taylor with the street smarts of Bella Abzug in her prime. All this and her ability to deal cards elevated the dark lady from Belarus far beyond her greenhorn status into the exalted company of the Bronx's predominantly Irish Democratic Party machine bosses.

"The Black Swan" picks up the story in 1949, with Faigele and her associates fallen from political favor. Jerome is now 11, unhappy at school and pushed out of the limelight at home by the advent of a baby brother, Marvin. Jerome takes to hanging out at a local film palace, where he becomes a kind of mascot to three shady characters who own the movie house. Through his new friends, young Jerome not only gets to go to a strip joint in Jersey (where one of his new buddies puts on a sizzling "Delilah" act that far "outstrips" the worn-out efforts of his female competitors), but also gets to meet a Shakespeare-loving gangster known as Farouk. Every inch his mother's son, the appealing yet savvy 11-year-old, nicknamed "Baby Charyn" by his new friends, soon becomes a kind of junior bagman for Farouk, and a great pal of Farouk's chief lieutenant, a black man called Tyrone. Offstage, but casting a long shadow over the proceedings, is big-cheese gangster Meyer Lansky, known as "the Little Man."

It is not clear from the tone of the proceedings whether Charyn intends us to be amused, alarmed or genuinely impressed by Baby Charyn's precocious acquaintance with the underworld. Sometimes, the authorial voice sounds ironic, other times perfectly straight. "The Black Swan" often seems less swan than duck-billed platypus: an odd mix. But it contains quite enough in the way of wry humor, scary suspense and occasional poignancy to make for a reasonably lively and diverting read.

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