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Bitter Bronx: Thirteen Stories


Bitter Bronx: Thirteen Stories

With Brooklyn the bastion of all things cool and hip, and Manhattan the center of culture and commerce, the borough of the Bronx is often overlooked or misunderstood. It certainly is rarely the focus of artistic or literary expression. But with Jerome Charyn's latest book, BITTER BRONX, the Bronx is in the spotlight, albeit a dark and gritty one.

With an almost breathless style, Charyn gives readers compelling characters who are restless, reckless and desperate. Class, economics and education come into play in a world of faded beauty, long-gone wealth and violence, as people --- most of whom have little to begin with --- slowly become disillusioned.

Don't skip the Author's Note that introduces readers to Charyn's connection to the Bronx, both the physical and the emotional. For him it is a place of memory and identity, beginnings and unfinished business, and it is this understanding of the borough that infuses and colors all 13 stories in this collection. He writes that the Bronx “felt like a shriek” inside his skull “or a wound that had been stitched over by some insane surgeon.” This uneasiness and pain simmer under the surface of BITTER BRONX, bubbling up and erupting at times.

"Every single tale here is short, brutal, harrowing, heartbreaking, mesmerizing and altogether unforgettable."

The first story, “Lorelei,” sets the tone with an aging grifter, Howell, returning home to the Bronx to find that his old landlord and his daughter, who happens to have been Howell's first love, still live in the same building. After years of taking advantage of lonely women, Howell's return to the Lorelei and his reunion with Naomi and her father shake him up and disturb him greatly. He realizes that the choices he made in the years since leaving the Bronx have stemmed from his feelings for Naomi and his experiences as a poor kid living in the basement of a decaying, once proud “palace.”

Similarly, “Adonis” centers on a man who unsuccessfully capitalizes on objectification. A young art student is discovered by a shady retailer with ties to organized crime and is pressured to make a move from modeling to prostitution. He finds a kindred, if not always sympathetic, spirit in his best friend's mother, who was once also a model and prostitute for the same syndicate. In both these stories, the shiny attractiveness of people and places is worn thin, worn out or revealed to be something else, and the protagonist is both an agent of that revelation and its victim.

Three interrelated stories star Marla, a powerful attorney in Manhattan who discovers a secret that her parents kept for decades: she has a younger sister living in a facility in the Bronx. It’s never clear the exact reasons why Irene (or, as the family called her, Little Sister) was sent away. Marla's father loved Irene too much or too little, or perhaps she was a danger to Marla. Either way, her entry into Marla's life is strange, and she goes from being a frightening figure rejected by her mother and a threat to her older sister to an accomplished paralegal and fierce defender of Marla in about 50 pages. As bizarre and breakneck as it sounds, it works because the Bronx of Charyn's pen is one of rapid changes of personal circumstance against a backdrop that is slowly falling apart.

All of the characters, like the Bronx itself, seem to be grappling with identity, history and shattered expectations. A family man descends into homelessness and crime, an artist struggles to capture the essence of her subject, a teacher is thwarted by his inabilities and his attractions, and a former baseball player hopes to make his neighborhood safe but instead opens the door for even more dangerous criminals.

Every single tale here is short, brutal, harrowing, heartbreaking, mesmerizing and altogether unforgettable.

Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on June 5, 2015

Bitter Bronx: Thirteen Stories
by Jerome Charyn

  • Publication Date: June 1, 2015
  • Genres: Fiction, Short Stories
  • Hardcover: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Liveright
  • ISBN-10: 0871404893
  • ISBN-13: 9780871404893