Longlisted for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award
Brooklyn is dead. Long live the Bronx! In Bitter Bronx, Jerome Charyn returns to his roots and leads the literary renaissance of an oft-overlooked borough in this surprising new collection.
In Bitter Bronx, one of our most gifted and original novelists depicts a world before and after modern urban renewal destroyed the gritty sanctity of a land made famous by Ruth, Gehrig, and Joltin' Joe.
Bitter Bronx is suffused with the texture and nostalgia of a lost time and place, combining a keen eye for detail with Jerome Charyn's lived experience. These stories are informed by a childhood growing up near that middle-class mecca, the Grand Concourse; falling in love with three voluptuous librarians at a public library in the Lower Depths of the South Bronx; and eating at Mafia-owned restaurants along Arthur Avenue's restaurant row, amid a "land of deprivation…where fathers trundled home…with a monumental sadness on their shoulders."
In "Lorelei," a lonely hearts grifter returns home and finds his childhood sweetheart still living in the same apartment house on the Concourse; in "Archy and Mehitabel" a high school romance blossoms around a newspaper comic strip; in "Major Leaguer" a former New York Yankee confronts both a gang of drug dealers and the wreckage that Robert Moses wrought in his old neighborhood; and in three interconnected stories—"Silk & Silk," "Little Sister," and "Marla"—Marla Silk, a successful Manhattan attorney, discovers her father's past in the Bronx and a mysterious younger sister who was hidden from her, kept in a fancy rest home near the Botanical Garden. In these stories and others, the past and present tumble together in Charyn's singular and distinctly "New York prose, street-smart, sly, and full of lurches" (John Leonard, New York Times).
Throughout it all looms the "master builder" Robert Moses, a man who believed he could "save" the Bronx by building a highway through it, dynamiting whole neighborhoods in the process. Bitter Bronx stands as both a fictional eulogy for the people and places paved over by Moses' expressway and an affirmation of Charyn's "brilliant imagination" (Elizabeth Taylor, Chicago Tribune).
Tough on the outside but tender at heart, the 13 stories in this volume serve as a nostalgic elegy to the Bronx of the past. In "Lorelei," a con man returns to his childhood home and finds his high school sweetheart trapped in a grotesque state of mutual dependency with her father. "Dee" explores the relationship between Diane Arbus and Eddie Carmel, the so-called Jewish Giant of the Bronx, made famous by her photographs. In "Major Leaguer," a former baseball player develops an uneasy alliance with a neighborhood drug lord whose father remembered the one game that he played for the New York Yankees. The setting for all of the stories is a Bronx divided into north and south by "an expressway, which had turned everything around it into a vast moonscape of flattened warehouses and empty lots," and the titular bitterness is Charyn's own at the blight brought to the borough he remembers from childhood. For all that, Charyn's well-drawn characters nonetheless flourish, and most manage to rise above their decrepit surroundings, such as the high school teacher in "Milo's Last Chance" who infects his barrio students with his enthusiasm for poetry "until they began to sing out words like some wild soprano." Mixing equal parts grit and charm, there's no need to have set foot in the Bronx to enjoy these stories.