By Mark Traphagen on December 2, 2012
After reading The Dark Lady from Belorusse, it’s difficult to say where the author’s life ends and his novels begin. This is Jerome Charyn’s memoir of growing up with an immigrant mother who takes on the corrupt and cacophonous Bronx of the 1940s and bends it to her indomitable will. As he’s done with fictional treatments of historical characters like Emily Dickinson (The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson [my review]), George Washington (Johnny One-Eye: A Tale of the American Revolution [my Amazon review]), and Joe Dimaggio (Joe Dimaggio: The Long Vigil), when writing about his own life he populates it with larger-than-life characters and delicious dialog we could only hope real people really said.
Charyn’s mother earns her “Dark Lady” nickname when one of her many male admirers compares her to a character called that in a Chekhov story. But unlike the tragic heroine of that story, Charyn’s Faigele (as she is known) does not drown herself in despair. As she says when the borough president tells her her factory job will kill her: “Fat chance, Mr. Lions. I survived the tzar, I’l survive a candy factory in the Bronx.”
But this isn’t just the story of a strong woman surviving in a man’s world (is his mother one reason Charyn had such an attraction to Emily Dickinson?). It is also the story of a sickly and persecuted child who learns to be the man he will become at his mother’s knee. Young Jerome is in tow as the beautiful Faigele, whom men compare to Joan Crawford and Greta Garbo, navigates wave after wave of con men, mob bosses, and would-be lovers who threaten to drown her, but always end up helpless under her own tidal force. Through his eyes we see her adapt the courage she learned from her beloved brother hiding from cossacks in the swamps of Belorusse to conquering the strange new world of war-time Bronx, NY.
In a memorable scene Faigele removes the portrait of FDR from the wall of her family’s apartment, a sacrilegious act in solidly-Democrat Bronx of that time. She is angry at Roosevelt whose political machinations she blames for the death of a friend and benefactor. Her husband protests that he is the President of the United States. “Not in my house,” responds Faigele. Mrs. Charyn is fiercely loyal to those she loves, but anyone who crosses her will not be pared her scorn, even if he is the President.
Just as in his novels, Jerome Charyn gives us just as much pleasure in his use of language and imagery as in his vivid storytelling. For example, recalling a favorite cafe called “The Bitter Eagles,” Faigele describes her lover and son who have gone into the house painting business together as “bitter eagles…who like to fly near the ceiling.”
The Dark Lady from Belorusse then is a memoir that slides right in amongst Charyn’s novels, a raucous yet moving carnival ride of the human spirit rising above the muck of our communal swamp. In its pages, he reveals to us how an impoverished “bitter eagle” from the Grand Concourse could learn to fly.