This rich history falls short as fiction

Bob Moyer thinks that Jerome Charyn takes on more history and weaves more tangled webs than he can handle in his latest novel.

Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer

RAVAGE & SON. By Jerome Charyn. Bellevue Literary Press. 288 pages. $17.99.

The lower east side of New York City has a heap of Jewish history, and Jerome Charyn has crammed as much as he can into his latest novel. The streets in these pages teem with character, plots, and details drawn from the early 20th century, when migrants streamed into the city from Eastern Europe.

Charyn uses one of those actual migrants, Abraham Cahan, as a guide to the drama in those streets. Cahan edits the Yiddish paper The Daily Forward, and is known as “the Baron” because of his influence on the community. The author surrounds this real-life character with fictional financial barons, mostly German. They had moved from the lower east side to mansions in the upper, and look askance upon these newcomers. Leonard Ravage, he of the title Ravage, is one of them, a vicious landlord and philanderer who spread his seed around the ghetto.

One of those seeds is his unacknowledged son Benjamin. He was adopted by Cahan, went off to college, and came back a Harvard-educated lawyer who takes up the cases of the poor and indigent, in the face of corrupt courts, cops and politicians. Some love him, including the Yiddish version of Sarah Bernhardt and Cahan’s wife. Needless to say, however, the barons, particularly his father, want to get rid of him. In a series of attacks they attempt to do just that, and they almost succeed.

This book does not. Although Charyn can turn a phrase now and then, and provides some vivid historical detail, the many plot lines become so cluttered that it is difficult to follow who is in the pocket of whom, and who ordered Ben beaten. The reader empathizes with Ben, who while trying to resolve a ludicrous domestic argument, mutters “Always complications. It’s worse than the Yiddish Theater.” Indeed.

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