About Me

Ithaca, New York
MWF, now officially 42, loves long walks on the beach and laughing with friends ... oh, wait. By day, I'm a mid-level university administrator reluctant to be more specific on a public forum. Nights and weekends, though, I'm a homebody with strong nerdist leanings. I'm never happier than when I'm chatting around the fire, playing board games, cooking up some pasta, and/or road-tripping with my family and friends. I studied psychology and then labor economics in school, and I work in higher education. From time to time I get smug, obsessive, or just plain boring about some combination of these topics, especially when inequality, parenting, or consumer culture are involved. You have been warned.

Friday, June 19, 2009

#51 - Johnny One-Eye

OK, the good news is, I may just keep up with my 10 book a month pace, despite how long it took me to slog through Nixonland. The more frustrating news is, that's left me a bit behind in terms of reviewing what I've read, so I have some catching up to do, and the next few reviews are likely to be on the short and cursory side. All righty, then.

My 51st book of the year was Johnny One-Eye: A Tale of the American Revolution by Jerome Charyn (W.W. Norton, 2008). This was yet another New York Times-reviewed book that I checked out remembering little more than the title, and I guess I'm glad I did; it was an interesting change from what I usually read, though I don't know that it will make my top ten list for the year. The novel is set in and around a nearly unrecognizable York Island (a/k/a Manhattan) during the Revolutionary War. Our title character is a thoroughly unprincipled double agent, whose true loyalties never do become quite clear (at least to me). He lost his eye serving with a not-yet-traitorous Benedict Arnold in Quebec, and is inexplicably fascinated with "farmer-in-chief" General George Washington, yet admits a lingering allegiance to King George and the Loyalists who sponsored his education at Kings College. A "man-child of uncertain birth," Johnny was raised in York Island's most famous brothel (incongruously dubbed Holy Ground; in the same vein, the prostitutes who work there are referred to throughout the book as "nuns"), and has understood for years that its madam, Gertrude Jennings, is his mother. His paternity is uncertain, but he becomes convinced early on that his father is none other than Gertrude's star patron, George Washington ... which Gertrude will neither confirm nor deny.

The bulk of the novel consists of Johnny getting into one scrape after another, rotting in a British prison ship, trying desparately to foil a plot to assassinate Washington, and above all, trying to win the affections of Clara, a blonde, green-eyed, freckled octoroon who happens to be Gertrude's star nun. Frankly, this last plot line (or at least the way it was handled) seemed a bit contrived to me; Johnny's actions would have been far more interesting on their own had Charyn not felt the need to tell us on every other page that he was doing it all for Clara.

Sigh. This was one of those books I struggled with. It was OK, and I did finish it. The descriptions of what New York looked and sounded and smelled like at the time, absent from much historical fiction, were excellent. I also appreciated Charyn's depiction of some of the ways in which African-Americans contributed to the war effort, from Rhode Island's regiment of black soldiers to the mesmerizing Prince Paul, de facto mayor of York Island's Little Africa. But aside from that ... I thought I should like this book, and I tried, but it just didn't do all that much for me. Perhaps the main reason is that Johnny and the other strictly-fictional characters (Gertrude and Clara among them) are far less developed than the historical figures Charyn plunks down into their world. The book doesn't purport to be anything other than fiction, but nonetheless, it was interesting to imagine the likes of Washington and Benedict Arnold, so long lionized and demonized by history, as complex, flawed human beings. Unfortunately, neither Johnny nor Clara is rendered nearly as well; Gertrude fares somewhat better, but not by much. This made it a bit difficult to follow what was going on and why (though the dramatis personae at the start of the book did at least help me keep track of who was involved).

Bottom line: Worth reading if you're a fan of the picaresque and/or of Revolution-era historical fiction, but if you're not, this probably won't be the book to convert you.

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