BRONX BOY is the third and final installment of Jerome Charyn's Bronx boyhood memoirs. He here reaches the age of 13, and his career as soda jerk, apprentice mobster, sex object, and street urchin, presaged in two previous books, is in full flower.
BRONX BOY is a short book --- I easily read its 184 pages in a single day --- and a pleasant, if occasionally raunchy, entertainment. It is brightly and breezily written, with heavy reliance on verbatim-reported dialogue. Its characters are deftly drawn, its atmosphere of the Bronx "badlands" successfully conveyed.
There is, however, a problem --- one acknowledged by both Charyn himself in a paragraph at the book's end, and by his publisher in an accompanying press release. The reader is left wondering: How much of this rowdy tale is true, and how much is creative embellishment? Charyn's disclaimer admits to "imaginative recreation" of characters, places, and incidents and denies that they are "actual." The publisher's note speaks archly of Charyn's "fertile imagination." Does not this sort of thing leaves the reader, however well entertained, sitting out on the end of a rather shaky limb? Shades of Truman Capote and the "nonfiction novel."
That necessary caution noted, BRONX BOY is a neat piece of work. Young Jerome, known as "Baby," gains status in the world of 1950s-era Bronx street gangs through his talent as a concocter of "black and tans" --- a species of ice cream soda featuring coffee ice cream and chocolate syrup. His employer is a drug addict married to a glamorous prostitute. There are rivalries both within his gang, the Bronx Boys, and with other gangs such as the Spiders. Baby is suspect because he reads Flaubert and Dostoyevsky in between gang activities. His immigrant mother Faigele, celebrated in the book that preceded this one, THE DARK LADY FROM BELORUSSE, is going blind. And everyone lives in fear of the legendary Bronx gangland king, Meyer Lansky, the "Little Man."
Nothing happens on those badlands streets without Lansky's approval. In fact Baby's rise in the gang hierarchy dates from the day he outfaced the dreaded Lansky at a soda-jerking competition and won first prize over the great gangster's hand-picked candidate. Suicidal chutzpah perhaps, but Lansky took notice, and Baby became an instant celebrity.
Lansky and Joe DiMaggio are touted as two iconic figures in Charyn's world, but in fact DiMaggio appears in only one scene for four or five pages (he drops in for an ice cream soda between games of a doubleheader at nearby Yankee Stadium), and Lansky, though much talked about, is present to the reader only at the soda-jerk competition. Cameo appearances, both.
Baby's employment as doorman and secretary in the luscious Sarah Dove's one-woman brothel lends the book some mildly titillating spice --- but how many prostitutes, one wonders, would use the word "paterfamilias" in conversation, even with a streetwise adolescent like Baby? Sounds like "imaginative recreation" to me.
There is a fair amount of romanticized head-cracking violence in BRONX BOY. One rival gangster who dares to challenge Meyer Lansky is casually incinerated inside his torched roadhouse. That's just the way these endearing rogues do things, so get used to it.
Another dimension of Charyn's Bronx life involves a set of upscale Russian-Jewish characters, the Roths and the Russkoffs. Their scion, Basil Roth, starts out as one of Baby's chief nemeses in life, but ends up his comrade in gangstering --- before Charyn has him killed off rather peremptorily. Basil is a kind of pitiless goon who turns out to have a heart of gold. The fall from grace and affluence of the Roth and Russkoff high rollers is one of Charyn's cautionary-tale motifs. Baby's sexual education, pursued with various female characters in the badlands, ends in the bed of the Roth matriarch Masha.
BRONX BOY has an engaging Runyonesque flavor to it, with maybe a dash of Brendan Behan added for extra sizzle. It is a pleasant day's literary diversion, though perhaps no more nutritious in the long run than those black-and-tans that Baby created so virtuosically behind his soda-fountain counter.
Reviewed by Robert Finn (Robertfinn@aol.com) on April 11, 2002